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Monster Black Hole Cygni V404 Wakes Up with a Massive Appetite for Stars

First Posted: Jun 26, 2015 09:15 AM EDT

A monster black hole woke up for the first time in 26 years-and it was hungry. Scientists have spotted an exceptional outburst of high-energy light produced by a black hole that's devouring material from a nearby star.

The black hole is actually part of a system, called V404 Cygni. It's a system made up of a black hole and a star orbiting one another. It's located in our Milky Way galaxy, and is found almost 8,000 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus.

Material actually flows from the star towards the black hole and gathers in a disc, where it is heated up. This shines brightly at optical, ultraviolet and X-ray wavelengths before spiraling into the black hole. In this case, the black hole system hasn't been very bright and active since 1989, when it was observed with the Japanese X-ray satellite Ginga and high-energy instruments on board the Mir space station.

The first signs of renewed activity in V404 Cygni were spotted by the Burst Alert Telescope on NASA's Swift satellite. This instrument detected a sudden burst of gamma rays, and then triggered observations with its X-ray telescope.

"The behavior of this source is extraordinary at the moment, with repeated bright flashes of light on time scales shorter than an hour, something rarely seen in other black hole systems," said Erik Kuulkers, one of the researchers, in a news release. "In these moments, it becomes the brightest object in the x-ray sky-up to fifty times brighter than the Crab Nebula, normally one of the brightest sources in the high-energy sky."

The findings reveal a bit more about the behavior of this black hole, and may point toward what happens to other black holes, as well.

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