Astronomers have seen a black hole tearing a star apart for the first time.
A lot of good things come out of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. The country’s first hospital, President Woodrow Wilson, and even the ever-humble scribe of this article came from its hallowed halls. Now JHU, collaborating with NASA, has discovered something that dwarfs all of its previous findings – literally. Astronomers there have observed the first-ever evidence of a supermassive black hole destroying a star, piece by piece. This observation is a testament to the destructive power of one of the universe’s oddest phenomena, as well as a sobering reminder of what may lie in the heart of our own galaxy.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (2.7 billion light years, to be precise), a dying star wandered too close to a black hole. In a series of images from NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer in space and Pan-STARRS1’s ground telescope in Hawaii, astronomers saw images of a star with an enormous observable flare stemming from its nucleus. At first, researchers believed that this energy could be anything from a nuclear flare to a supernova. However, x-ray observations of the gas present in this star ruled out those possibilities, and observation continued for over twelve months – an exceptionally long time for a star’s brightness to wax and wane so dramatically.
“The longer the event lasted, the more excited we got, because we realized this is either a very unusual supernova or an entirely different type of event, such as a star being ripped apart by a black hole,” said Armin Rest, a member of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Sure enough, the team observed that the star’s flare was likely due to its helium being stripped off by a massive gravitational force. A black hole, several million times as massive as our own sun, was the likeliest culprit. It had dragged the dying star into its orbit and proceeded to systematically tear it apart, piece by piece.
All of this happened approximately 2.7 billion years ago, so the star is long gone, but there’s no telling what the black hole has been up to since then. However, astronomers theorize that a similar black hole lies at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, and stars do cross its orbit once every 100,000 years or so. If we observed such a phenomenon firsthand, it would be an incredible find – one might even say stellar. Or astronomical.
I’ll just show myself out now.