May 08, 2012 4:43 PM GMT
Scientists have witnessed the rare spectacle of a supermassive black hole devouring a star that had ventured too close - an event that occurs about once in 10,000 years.
Supermassive black holes are giant gravity wells that usually lurk dormant and undetected at the centre of galaxies, but can occasionally be tracked by the scraps left over from their stellar fests.
"Black holes, like sharks, suffer from a popular misconception that they are perpetual killing machines," says researcher Ryan Chornock from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics.
"Actually, they're quiet for most of their lives. Occasionally a star wanders too close, and that's when a feeding frenzy begins."
If a star passes too close, the black hole's gravitational pull can rip it apart before sucking in its gases, which are heated by the friction and start to glow - giving away the silent killer's hiding place.