Black hole gobbles neutron star, belches gravity waves

An artist’s impression of a neutron star on the verge of destruction before spiralling into a black hole. Image: Carl Knox, OzGrav ARC Centre of Excellence

Researchers have detected gravitational ripples in the fabric of space that may indicate the catastrophic destruction of a neutron star as it crashed into a black hole.

“About 900 million years ago, this black hole ate a very dense star, known as a neutron star, like Pac-man, possibly snuffing out the star instantly,” said Susan Scott, leader of the General Relativity Theory and Data Analysis Group at The Australian National University.

Scott said ANU’s SkyMapper Telescope is searching the region where the event was detected on 14 August by the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave detectors in the United States and Italy. So far, no visual confirmation has been found.

But the initial gravity wave data indicates a strong likelihood a black hole consumed a neutron star, the core of a once massive star that collapsed in a supernova blast, stopping just short of becoming a black hole itself.

“Scientists have never detected a black hole smaller than five solar masses or a neutron star larger than about 2.5 times the mass of our Sun,” Scott said. “Based on this experience, we’re very confident that we’ve just detected a black hole gobbling up a neutron star.”

But researchers have not yet completed analysing the data and “there is the slight but intriguing possibility that the swallowed object was a very light black hole, much lighter than any other black hole we know about in the universe,” Scott added. “That would be a truly awesome consolation prize.”