From: Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor, Reuters
Published December 17, 2007 03:27 PM

"Bully" black hole blasts nearby galaxy: NASA

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A "death star" galaxy is sending out a powerful jet of particles and magnetic radiation that is likely obliterating any possible life in its broad path, notably in a nearby galaxy, astronomers said on Monday.

They said the two galaxies appear to be merging and the disturbance in the magnetic field caused by this movement may have awakened a dormant, supermassive black hole in one of the galaxies.

They have images of the deadly blast, spurting out from a system known as 3C321.

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Data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory show both galaxies have supermassive black holes at their centers, and 3C321, the larger galaxy, is emitting this stream of energy and particles. The unnamed smaller galaxy apparently has swung into the path of this jet.

The astronomers agree that both galaxies are likely to have planetary systems but nothing resembling life on any planet could survive the blast. While such jets have been seen before, this is the first time one has been observed battering another galaxy, the researchers report in The Astrophysical Journal.

"First its enormous gamma ray radiation field is likely to destroy the ozone layer," Dan Evans of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who led the study, told reporters in a telephone briefing.

And the magnetic field of any planet would be compressed, leaving it vulnerable to solar storms from its star.

"There are tens to hundreds of millions of stars in the path. Some of those stars almost certainly have planets," said Martin Hardcastle an astrophysicist at Britain's University of Hertfordshire.

"It's ... like a bully, a black hole bully, punching the nose of any passing galaxy," Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, told the briefing.

There is no need to worry about this death ray hitting Earth -- the galaxies are 1.4 billion light years away -- a light year being the distance light travels in a year, or about 6 trillion miles.

Several telescopes were used to build a picture of the violent event, including the Chandra observatory, Hubble Space Telescope, and Spitzer Space Telescope, as well as Earthbound observatories such as the Very Large Array telescope in New Mexico and Britain's Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network or MERLIN telescopes.

Such jets from black holes have been seen before, and they produce high amounts of radiation, especially high-energy X-rays and gamma-rays.

"In addition to that, there is high energy radiation coming out from the center of the active galaxy. That is not the jet," Evans said.

It is not clear why the larger galaxy started shooting out these deadly rays. "We know how you can trigger a black hole by having two galaxies interact because it disrupts the gravity field that was previously stable," Tyson said.

Evans said the two galaxies appear to be in the process of a billion-year-long-merger. "They are actually doing somewhat of a dance around each other," he said.

It may not mean all death and destruction -- such events can eventually lead to the creation of "stellar nurseries" and the birth of new stars, Tyson said.

(Editing by Philip Barbara)

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