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Astronomers Observe Black Hole Swallowing A Star 2.9 Billion Light-Years Away

In 2009, a very bright sudden glow of light was captured by the ROTSE IIIb telescope, generating confusion as to its source. Well now, a paper in The Astrophysical Journal suggests that the occurrence was the death throes of a star being absorbed by a massive black hole. Though, the consumption of a star is verifying strangely difficult for the black hole. When the ROTSE3 J120847.9+430121 event was detected on January 21, 2009, as part of the ROTSE Supernova Verification Project (RSVP), four concepts were suggested about what could have triggered such a brief and bright event. It might be the outcome of two neutron stars merging; a gamma-ray eruption whose central radiation was directed away from us, a super glowing supernova, or a star being consumed by the supermassive black hole at the center of its galaxy. The event was definitely very bright—its red shift located it 2.9 billion light-years away from us, at which distance its detected brightness would interpret to a complete magnitude of -22.5, six times more shimmering than the whole Milky Way and a competition for the brightest known supernovae.

Computer simulation of a star being swallowed by a relatively small supermassive black hole Image Credit: James Guillochon Harvard University. 

So far it has taken six years and a few days, but now an international group of astronomers consider they have resolved the mystery, concluding that the ROTSE3 J120847.9+430121 event —dubbed "Dougie" after a South Park character who assists as a colleague to Professor Chaos—drops into the last classification. Far-reaching study of Dougie's swiftly dying afterglow, pooled with modelling of every physical procedure, recommended that the ingesting of a star was the finest fit. Observing a black hole in the course of terminating a star is not common, but such happenings have been seen numerous times. Part of the misunderstanding about Dougie's distinctiveness, however, is that Dougie didn't look like any of those earlier happenings. According to Wheeler, main author of the paper, “the star doesn't fall directly into the black hole. It might form a disk first. But the black hole is destined to swallow most of that material.”

Even when the star is being torn apart, it is radiating strongly and this radiation is pushing back against the black hole. The authors of the paper conclude that this is not because the star is large—being only a projected 80% of the mass of the sun—but because the super massive black hole has the mass of nearly a million suns, which is “rather uncertain” in Wheeler's words, and fewer than a quarter that at the midpoint of our own Milky Way galaxy. You can read the published paper here.

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