Black Hole Shredding Star to Smithereens Glimpsed for the First Time

Astronomers have been doing a fantastic job this year of giving us a whole lot of what we want to see from outer space: Mainly black holes doing crazy black-hole stuff. Earlier this year earthlings were treated to their first-ever picture of a black hole, and NASA’s most recent GIF-style animation of one of the lightless beasts was straight out of Interstellar. Now, we’re being treated to our first glimpse of what NASA refers to as a “star-shredding black hole,” and even the below simulated visualization of the event is hauntingly beautiful.

In a recent press release, NASA announced that its “planet hunting” Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) spotted a supermassive black hole feasting on a star as the latter celestial object was sucked into orbit by the inescapable gravity of the former. The cosmic event, first eyed by TESS in January of this year, has been documented in a new paper published in The Astrophysical Journal.

The event, which was recorded by a team of researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science (CIS) along with those at NASA, gives a unique look at what is referred to as a tidal disruption event, or TDE. CIS’s own announcement detailing the vision of the supermassive black hole sucking down its star snack notes that TDEs occur when a star comes too close to a supermassive black hole. “The black hole’s forces overwhelm the star’s gravity and tear it to shreds,” CIS notes in its statement, adding that “Some of [the star’s] material gets flung out into space and the rest falls back onto the black hole, forming a disk of hot, bright gas as it is consumed.”

In regards to getting a sense of scale, the supermassive blackhole, located in the center of galaxy 2MASX J07001137-6602251, is roughly six million times more massive than our own sun, while the star destroyed by the supermassive black hole is estimated to be roughly equal to that of our local fiery ball of nuclear fusion.

The cosmic event has been dubbed ASASSN-19bt after the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (or ASAS-SN), which was used to verify what TESS first spotted. ASAS-SN was able to do so because its array of 20 robotic telescopes based in both the northern and southern hemispheres is capable of surveying the entire sky approximately once every day. And while ASAS-SN’s main mission is to search for supernovae, this star-shredding event is obviously just as exciting—in fact, while supernovae happen every 100 years or so, TDEs like this only happen every 10,000 to 100,000 years in a galaxy the size of the Milky Way.

Moving forward, NASA and CIS are aiming to answer a bunch of questions raised by the TDE “poster child” event, including why it gave off so much UV light relative to higher-energy X-rays. The mystery surrounding the emittance of surprisingly low energy-light remains a mystery for now, but there’s no question the exploration of TDEs has a very bright future.

What do you think about this supermassive black hole shredding up a star? Tear up the comments with your thoughts!

Images: NASA