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Astronomers get a front row seat to a star getting torn apart by a huge black hole

12 Oct 2020, 12:00 UTC
Astronomers get a front row seat to a star getting torn apart by a huge black hole
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When a star goes to battle with a supermassive black hole, the way to bet is kinda obvious. Especially when the black hole is a million times the mass of the star, and is, well, a black hole.

But the specific way the star gets eaten isn't a sure thing. Usually, the star gets torn apart, ripped to shreds by the black hole's immensely powerful gravity, which is why this is called a Tidal Disruption Event, or TDE (astronomers really need to up their nomenclature game). This causes a brain-stompingly huge blast of energy, billions of times brighter than the Sun. But how exactly that happens can change what we see. One problem though is that these explosive events tend to happen a very long way off, making them hard to study.

In 2019, the light from such a doomed encounter reached Earth, and it didn't come from clear across the Universe; it happened a mere 215 million light years away, making this the closest TDE ever seen in optical light*. That's pretty fortunate, because its proximity means it was caught earlier than usual —the intrinsically fainter early days of the event were still bright enough to see; for a ...

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