Be One Of The First In History To Witness A Supermassive Black Hole Destroy A Star

Published September 27, 2019
Published September 27, 2019

Events like this are not only incredibly rare but difficult to capture. NASA managed it with a state-of-the-art satellite and a network of robotic telescopes.

Black Hole And Destroying Star

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center For the first time, a star was captured on photo as it was destroyed by a black hole.

Have you ever wondered what a star looks like as it’s ripped apart by a supermassive black hole? Probably not. But thanks to the diligent eyes at NASA and Ohio State University, you don’t have to wonder, you can see it for yourself.

According to local Ohio radio station WOSU, a NASA satellite and a network of robotic telescopes known as the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae — or ASAS-SN for short — located at the university captured the cosmic battle for the first time on film.

This is the first time such an event was recorded.

The supermassive black hole is estimated to weigh approximately 6 million times the mass of our sun and is located some 375 million light-years away in the Volans constellation at the center of the 2MASX J07001137-6602251 galaxy.

The unfortunate star was roughly the same size as our sun.

The event, known as a tidal disruption event or TDE, is not only rare — like once every 10,000 to 100,000 years rare — but it also requires very specific conditions to occur.

If a star wanders too close to a black hole, it will be sucked in without a trace. If the star is too far, it’ll simply ricochet off the black hole and be bounced off into space.

If it’s at the perfect distance, the star can be seen in part sucked in by the black hole’s dominating gravity and ultimately ripped apart. Some of that starry material is then shot back out into space as the rest remains trapped in the black hole.

Due to their rarity, these events are very difficult to capture.

“Imagine that you are standing on top of a skyscraper downtown, and you drop a marble off the top, and you are trying to get it to go down a hole in a manhole cover,” Chris Kochanek, professor of astronomy at Ohio State, told CNN.

“It’s harder than that.”

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NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center An artist’s rendering of a star caught in the gravity of a supermassive black hole and ripped to bits.

However, the latest advancements in NASA technology allowed scientists to achieve just that. Apparently, NASA’s TESS satellite, which launched in April 2018, had detected the early signs of a possible TDE.

The satellite’s massive surveying area covers an area of space 400 times larger than that observed by the famed Kepler telescope. Its four wide-field cameras on board are able to scan different sectors of the sky for days at a time.

This particular tidal disruption event has been dubbed ASASSN-19bt. The research team watched it unfold for 42 days before it peaked in brightness 37 days later.

“Only a handful of TDEs have been discovered before they reached peak brightness and this one was found just a few days after it started to brighten,” said Thomas Holoien, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institute for Science.

Illustration Of Black Hole Destroying Star

Robin Dienel/Carnegie Institution for ScienceAn artist’s illustration of the battle between the star and the black hole.

“Plus, thanks to it being in what’s called TESS’ ‘continuous viewing zone,’ we have observations of it every 30 minutes going back months — more than ever before possible for one of these events.”

That data collected from this latest TDE is incredibly valuable as it has never been recorded before. The team hopes that the data will allow them to possibly pick up another TDE event in the future.

For instance, they recorded that this TDE, in particular, caused the temperature in the galaxy’s vicinity to drop 50 percent — from 39,704 degrees to 19,704 degrees Celsius; the first time cooling has ever been seen during such an event.

“It was once thought that all TDEs would look the same. But it turns out that astronomers just needed the ability to make more detailed observations of them,” the study’s co-author, Patrick Vallely, said.

The groundbreaking discovery was published in The Astrophysical Journal.

“We have so much more to learn about how they work, which is why capturing one at such an early time and having the exquisite TESS observations was crucial.”

Next up, discover the seven earth-like planets discovered by NASA in a nearby star’s habitable zone. Then, read the new study that suggests the Incas left their child sacrifices atop volcanoes to be struck by lightning.

Natasha Ishak
Natasha Ishak is a staff writer at All That's Interesting.