This Black Hole Ripped a Star to Shreds — Here’s How

Ohio State astronomers capture a black hole shredding a star — a rare tidal disruption event.

NASA has given us another magnificent glimpse into the awe-inspiring enigmatic region of space that is a black hole.

A NASA satellite and a network of robotic telescopes gave astronomers at The Ohio State University a look at a black hole ripping up a star. The astonishing footage was taken by NASA’s planet-hunting Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

The observation is reported in The Astrophysical Journal by a team of astronomers led by Carnegie’s Thomas Holoien, who is a founding member of the international network of telescopes that made the discovery—the Ohio State University-based All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN).

Tidal disruption events (TDEs), occur when a star moves too close in proximity to a supermassive black hole. These regions of space have immense gravitational pull and are believed to be located at the center of most sizeable galaxies. The black hole’s gravitational force overpowers the star’s gravity — tearing it to shreds. Some of its material gets hurled out into space, the rest cascades back into the black hole. As the star is consumed, a disk of hot, bright gas is formed.

In galaxies like our Milky Way, a tidal disruption event is rare. It is not easy for a star to find itself in such close proximity to a Black Hole. An event such as this only occurs once every 10,000 to 100,000 years, researchers say. For the star to become masticated it must pass by the black hole at a distance around as close as the Earth to the sun.

“TESS data let us see exactly when this destructive event, named ASASSN-19bt, started to get brighter, which we’ve never been able to do before,” Holoien said in a press statement.

Conditions have to be just right for a black hole to tear apart a star. If the star comes too close, it just gets imbibed. Should the star be too far, it will bounce off and gyrate out into the galaxy.

“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; 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,” said Holoien. “This makes ASASSN-19bt the new poster child for TDE research.”

Astronomers believe this supermassive black hole weighs roughly 6 million times the sun’s mass and is 375 million light-years away — located in a galaxy similar in size to the milky way.

"Part of it is, it’s just really cool," says Patrick Vallely, a graduate research fellow at Ohio State. "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."

Researchers hope they can use that data to try and predict the next time a black hole shreds a star.

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