You are here

Stellar Disruption

June 29, 2016

A star like the Sun can live for more than 10 billion years. It can survive the shockwave from a nearby supernova, or the impact of an infalling planet. One thing it can’t survive is a close encounter with a supermassive black hole. The black hole’s gravity can rip the star apart, leaving a streamer of super-heated gas that will fall into the black hole.

That was the case with an unlucky star in a galaxy about 300 million light-years away. The star passed within a few hundred million miles of the black hole at the galaxy’s heart. The black hole is only about a million times the mass of the Sun — pretty small for a supermassive black hole. Yet its gravity is still so powerful that it ripped the star apart, producing a brilliant flare.

A space telescope saw the flare in late 2014. Teams of astronomers quickly began watching the flare with other telescopes in space and on the ground. That allowed them to determine the nature of the flare: the destruction of a star roughly the size of the Sun.

As they watched the flare over the following weeks and months, they detected an outburst of radio waves — an act that came after the star’s demise. The star’s hot gas joined a disk of material around the black hole. As the gas spiraled around the black hole, some of it was funneled back into space — a “fountain” of charged particles racing outward at almost the speed of light: the last remains of a dead star.

More about black holes tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield

Get Premium Audio

Listen to today's episode of StarDate on the web the same day it airs in high-quality streaming audio without any extra ads or announcements. Choose a $8 one-month pass, or listen every day for a year for just $30.