A team of astrophysics researchers who were at a telescope on Mount Haleakala in Hawaii have published an article in Nature detailing their findings from 2010 when they witnessed a supermassive black hole taking down a star – and how they got to watch every second of it. A happening that is less common than you might think.
Black holes have been afflicted by a reputation analogous to that of sharks. Everyone seems to thinks black holes go hunting around the Universe for things to rip apart, just like sharks supposedly go killing everything in the ocean. Truth is, black holes are pretty quiet cosmological beasts that are only really evident when something starts to encroach on their personal space. In our own galaxy, it would take 10,000 years before anything was close enough to our central black hole to result in a spectacular death.
Usually when we get to see a star being swallowed by a black hole, we’ll end up turning to take a look at it only after the destruction has already begun. “What makes this so special was the fact that they actually caught the black hole as it was ripping the stellar core apart,” says Dr. David Floyd from the Monash Centre for Astrophysics in Melbourne.
The fact that we’ve managed to observe this event from beginning to end means that there is a lot more information available than ever before. We know the size of the black hole (approximately the same as the Milky Way’s central black hole), the fact that the star was probably a late-stage Red Giant and that it suffered its terrible fate because it got to within about 150 million kilometres of the supermassive black hole (about the same distance from the Sun to the Earth).
The gases from the star were sucked into the bottomless gravity pit and the friction gave it heat, creating a glow – the flare that astrophysicists are on the constant lookout for.
Modern telescopes like the Pan-STARRS (which is this one) and the LSST (the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope being built in Chile) mean that they can watch the Universe constantly, so they will hopefully catch more of these events and astrophysicists and researchers everywhere can all be satisfied with their own private viewings of the ferocious cosmic event.
Edit: Please note that this video is a computer simulation.