Astronomers at Ohio State University recently saw a black hole rip apart a star roughly the size of the sun, thanks to NASA satellites and robotic telescopes.
“Conditions have to be just right for a black hole to tear apart a star. The star can’t be too close that it just gets sucked up, or too far that it bounces off and spins out into the galaxy,” according to WOSU Public Media.
NASA’s orbiting Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) documented the timeline of the star as it spiraled toward the supermassive black hole.
On Thursday, NASA tweeted a video to explain exactly what happened during the rare occurrence:
What happens when a star strays too close to a black hole? Intense tides break it apart into a stream of gas. @NASA_TESS helped produce the most detailed look yet at the beginning of this cataclysmic phenomenon. Visualize how it unfolded: https://t.co/k8V9LFVX9f#BlackHoleWeek⚫ pic.twitter.com/h9H9mnfq9t
— NASA (@NASA) September 26, 2019
“This was a tidal disruption event, which happens when a star passes too close to a black hole,” the video stated. “Extreme gravity causes the star to bulge and break apart into a stream of gas. The tail of the stream escapes into space but the rest swings around to form an accretion disk.”
Reports said the team had been watching the light peak from the star being pulled towards the black hole for months before it was ultimately absorbed.
“This is the earliest we’ve ever seen emission from a TDE, and the earliest we could possibly see it – because TESS was already monitoring the part of the sky where it happened, we got to see exactly when it started to get brighter,” said astronomer Tom Holoien of Carnegie Science.
“There are only about 4 or 5 TDEs that are published that have been found prior to peak at all, and none were as early as this,” he concluded.
Reports said that on March 19, the event reached peak brightness, and the team continued to monitor it for months afterward until it was eventually torn apart by the black hole.
“Part of it is, it’s just really cool. We say, ‘Oh my gosh, we saw a star get torn apart by a black hole!’ And at least in astronomy, cool factor is like half of what we do,” said Patrick Vallely, a graduate research fellow at Ohio State.
The researchers who saw the event published their findings in an article for The Astrophysical Journal. They hope to use the data gathered from the TDE to predict when such a phenomenon might happen again.