Evidence from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Magellan telescopes suggest a star has been torn apart by an intermediate-mass black hole in a globular cluster. In this image, X-rays from Chandra are shown in blue and are overlaid on an optical image from the Hubble Space Telescope. The Chandra observations show that this object is a so-called ultraluminous X-ray source (ULX). An unusual class of objects, ULXs emit more X-rays than any known stellar X-ray source, but less than the bright X-ray sources associated with supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies. Their exact nature has remained a mystery, but one suggestion is that some ULXs are black holes with masses between about a hundred and a thousands times that of the Sun.
Data obtained in optical light with the Magellan I and II telescopes in Las Campanas, Chile, also provides intriguing information about this object, which is found in the elliptical galaxy NGC 1399 in the Fornax galaxy cluster. The spectrum reveals emission from oxygen and nitrogen but no hydrogen, a rare set of signals from within globular clusters. The physical conditions deduced from the spectra suggest that the gas is orbiting a black hole of at least 1,000 solar masses.
To explain these observations, researchers suggest that a white dwarf star strayed too close to an intermediate-mass black hole and was ripped apart by tidal forces. In this scenario the X-ray emission is produced by debris from the disrupted white dwarf star that is heated as it falls towards the black hole and the optical emission comes from debris further out that is illuminated by these X-rays.
Another interesting aspect of this object is that it is found within a globular cluster, a very old, very tight grouping of stars. Astronomers have long suspected globular clusters contained intermediate-mass black holes, but there has been no conclusive evidence of their existence there to date. If confirmed, this finding would represent the first such substantiation.