June 18 (UPI) -- New data discovered by astronomers at the University of New Hampshire's Space Science Center offers the best evidence yet of the existence of intermediate-mass black holes, or IMBHs.
Astronomers finally caught the elusive object devouring a star that drifted too close. Researchers imaged the consumption event using three different X-ray observatories, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, as well as the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton.
"We feel very lucky to have spotted this object with a significant amount of high quality data, which helps pinpoint the mass of the black hole and understand the nature of this spectacular event," Dacheng Lin, a research assistant professor at the Space Science Center, said in a news release. "Earlier research, including our own work, saw similar events, but they were either caught too late or were too far away."
The black hole's destruction of the intercepted star -- detailed in the journal Nature Astronomy -- was initially revealed by a large multiwavelength radiation flare. Scientists spotted the flare emanating from the outskirts of a distant galaxy.
Astronomers first located the flare in 2003. They tracked the emissions for a decade and, as expected, the flare's luminosity steadily dissipated over time. By analyzing the distribution of emitted photons during the tidal disruption event, scientists were able to accurately estimate the black hole's mass.
When a black hole's gravitational forces shred a star, most of the stellar shrapnel is pulled inward and condensed within the accretion disk. This condensed material heats up by millions of degrees, generating a unique X-ray flare. The flares can reveal the presence of an IMBH.
"From the theory of galaxy formation, we expect a lot of wandering intermediate-mass black holes in star clusters," said Lin. "But there are very, very few that we know of, because they are normally unbelievably quiet and very hard to detect and energy bursts from encountering stars being shredded happen so rarely."
Astronomers believe there are likely many IMBH's hiding in the outskirts of galaxies, near and far. Most are lying dormant, researchers estimate, making them hard to detect.