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See A Supermassive Black Hole Shredding A Star Apart

A supermassive black hole in another galaxy 375 million light years away just tore apart and swallowed a star, and amazingly, a satellite captured pictures of it happening. Although black holes are known for doing crazy things, this is next level: it only happens once every 10, 000 to 100,000 years. In other words, it's a once in a lifetime event, and you can see it happening right here on the interweb.

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  • diagram showing the early stages of star being pulled apart by black hole

    Scientists know little about black holes other than nothing, including light and time, can escape them. To find out what goes on inside one would probably involve going inside one, and no-one is volunteering for that. So we'll have to be satisfied with viewing them from afar and witnessing the strange things that happen around them. And the latest instalment of weird black hole activity is pretty insane: a supermassive black hole in the M87 galaxy just pulled apart and consumed a star. And we've got footage of it.  

    (FYI, in the photos in this article, the small box in the left hand corner is the actual footage of the star being torn apart: the rest is an animation to help us understand what happened.) 


  • gif showing a star changing shape before it gets sucked into black hole
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    Something strange was first noticed by scientists at the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASA-SN) on January 29 2019. ASA-SN is an organisation that has 20 automated telescopes around the world which constantly scan the sky looking for any unusual star or planet activity (no, they're not looking for aliens). 

    After the alert had been sounded that something was about to occur, astronomers were urged to point their telescopes to this particular point in the sky. This had to be done quickly, because when it comes to unexpected events in space, they can be over in a matter of seconds.


  • gif showing how a star gets stretched before getting sucked into black hole
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    Luckily, NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) was pointing in the direction of the black hole anyway. In fact, TESS had captured footage of the very early stages of the star being consumed by a black hole before ASA-SN were aware of it (it takes two weeks for the data from TESS to be transmitted to Earth). 

    Scientists think the destroyed star was about the size of our sun, and  the energy that was emitted from it while it did it's last dance was about 30 billion times stronger than the energy of our sun. To put it another way, a typical galaxy contains a few billion stars, and this star was outshining them all (that means it's really, really bright). If this happened in the Milky Way, we'd be able to see it during the day.

    The early data from TESS showed a star that was circling the supermassive black hole and increasing in brightness. The rise in brighness was smooth, confirming that it was a tidal disruption event (when a star gets pulled into a black hole) and not another outburst or flare. 


  • animation showing how a star turned into gas spirals around a black hole
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    As the star was drawn towards the black hole, it got stretched out into a long strand of gas and circled the black hole until it formed a spiral of hot gas called an accretion disk. Accretion disks are like water circling the drain of a bathtub; eventually the gas of the star disappeared down the "drain". 

    The footage of this event is important for astrophysists understand black holes more, including their mass and how quickly they spin. But besides being useful for science, it's also nice to remember that no matter how mundane our 9 to 5 lives are, there's always some pretty cool sh*t going on in space.

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