Ohio State Astronomers Capture Black Hole Shredding Star

Sep 26, 2019

A NASA satellite and a network of robotic telescopes at The Ohio State University gave astronomers a look at a black hole ripping up a star. 

Conditions have to be just right for a black hole to tear apart a star. The star can’t be too close that it just gets sucked up, or too far that it bounces off and spins out into the galaxy.

Thanks to a NASA satellite tasked with searching space for new planets, working with a network of telescopes headquartered at Ohio State called ASAS-SN, researchers got an unexpected glimpse of those perfect conditions.

Researchers say the supermassive black hole involved weighs approximately 6 million times the mass of the Sun, and sits at the center of a galaxy about 375 million light-years away in the Volans constellation. The star itself was similar in size to the Sun.

"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."

The other half, he says, is that they were able to detect it early, train more telescopes on the black hole, and capture unprecedented data about the rare event.

"It's really exciting to have this early window into what was going on that we hadn't been able to see before," he says. 

Vallely and other researchers published their discovery in The Astrophysical Journal. Researchers hope they can use that data to try and predict the next time a black hole shreds a star.