Supermassive black hole destroys wandering star

For the first time astronomers have observed the fate of a star that got too close to a supermassive black hole.

In this simulated image, a stream of stellar material is drawn into a black hole. Image Credit: NASA, S Gezari (JHU), and J Guillochon (UC Santa Cruz)
Published: May 4, 2012 at 12:00 pm
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When an unassuming star wanders too close to a supermassive black hole, weighing millions of times more than our Sun, there can be only one victor. Now, for the first time astronomers have not only recorded this cosmic ‘murder’, but identified the victim.


This colossal event was recorded by the Pan-STARRS team, an international group of astronomers led by Suvi Gezari of The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Using a combination of space and land-based telescopes, the team observed a helium rich star in a galaxy roughly 2.7 billion light years away being shredded, heated and destroyed by the immense gravitational pull of a supermassive black hole.

After being alerted to something unusual by NASA’s space telescope, the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX), the team began to monitor hundreds of thousands of galaxies using the observatory, alongside the Pan-STARRS1 telescope in Hawaii.

The team was searching for a bright flare in ultraviolet light from the centre of a galaxy with a previously dormant black hole.

After finding what they were looking for, the event was monitored for over a year, and the whole process was documented.


The team hopes this new evidence will provide astronomers with important insights into the environment surrounding black holes and the types of stars that exist in them.


Ezzy Pearson is the News Editor of BBC Sky at Night Magazine. Her first book about the history of robotic planetary landers is out now from The History Press.

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