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NASA Solves a Case of “Cosmic Homicide”

Everybody loves a murder mystery – including the space scientists at NASA. Spoiler alert: they already figured out the murderer in this whodunit and they’re calling it officially a “cosmic homicide.” If you know anything about space and astronomy, you won’t be surprised to learn that the culprit is a black hole. However, this one is a type that has been theorized to exist but has eluded detection and proof … until now. Is this really a murder mystery or more of a Stephen King horror thriller?

“Astronomers have found the best evidence for the perpetrator of a cosmic homicide: a black hole of an elusive class known as “intermediate-mass,” which betrayed its existence by tearing apart a wayward star that passed too close.”

NASA’s press release on the discovery of the first known intermediate-mass black hole (IMBH) opens like a murder case, but quickly switches to sounding like an archeological study.

“These so-called intermediate-mass black holes (IMBHs) are a long-sought “missing link” in black hole evolution.”

And then it becomes a horror monster thriller.

“It took the combined power of two X-ray observatories and the keen vision of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to nail down the cosmic beast.”

This is getting interesting.

While the movie doesn’t have a title yet, the plot opens with the Hubble telescope, that workhorse responsible for so many stellar discoveries. According to the NASA press release for the study published in the The Astrophysical Journal Letters, astronomer Dacheng Lin of the University of New Hampshire pointed the Hubble telescope at a strange X-ray flare detected but not identified previously by other space telescopes. The first clue this was something completely different was the startling discovery that it wasn’t coming from our galaxy nor from the center of another galaxy – which meant it wasn’t a supermassive black hole. Being on the edge of a galaxy made 3XMM J215022.4−055108 and its strange galactic home something new yet familiar.

“The star cluster that is home to 3XMM J215022.4−055108 may be the stripped-down core of a lower-mass dwarf galaxy that has been gravitationally and tidally disrupted by its close interactions with its current larger galaxy host.”

The cause of the X-ray flare was the cosmic homicide of a star by this strange black hole in a strange location in a strange galaxy. Using the glow, the astronomers estimated the size of the black hole at 50,000 solar masses – the perfect size to be an intermediate-mass black hole. That proves it’s both the murderer in the cosmic homicide tale and the missing link between small and supermassive black holes.

The black hole, named 3XMM J215022.4−055108, is indicated by the white circle. © NASA, ESA and D. Lin (University of New Hampshire)

Like good homicide detectives, the astronomers will use this new knowledge to look for other cosmic killer IMBHs. They’ll also keep their eye on 3XMM J215022.4−055108 – there’s no way to bring it in and lock it up for life, so it’s still lurking in a dark corner of a mysterious galaxy … waiting for an unsuspecting star to sashay by. Yes, it’s a true “cosmic beast.”

Killer Cosmic Beast. Homicide: Life on the Galactic Edge. Law & Order: Intermediate Black Hole Unit. The movie and TV series possibilities are intriguing. Maybe it’s time for a channel that caters to astronomers. Andromeda Prime? Netflux? Starz Encore Murders?

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Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
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