Giant Black Hole Shreds and Swallows Helpless Star
Some people seem born under an unlucky star. But some stars are equally unlucky themselves. Astronomers have spotted a star in another galaxy plunging toward a giant black hole and being ripped to shreds, sparking a flare so brilliant that observers detected it from a distance of 2.1 billion light-years. By watching the flare brighten and fade, scientists have achieved the unprecedented feat of reconstructing the life story of the doomed sun.
Giant black holes occupy the centers of most large galaxies, including our own, whose central black hole is 4 million times as massive as the sun and swallows a star once every 10,000 to 100,000 years. Astronomers have recently seen black holes in several other galaxies rip stars apart. But the new drama is unique. “This is the first time where we’re really seeing one of these events from start to finish,” says astronomer Suvi Gezari of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. (coauthor of the Nature paper). “What was so spectacular was the fact that we actually could figure out what type of star was disrupted.”
— Ken Croswell, AAAS