Astronomer Tom Holoien discovers supermassive black hole destroying a star

ByJennifer Matarese WABC logo
Friday, September 27, 2019
Astronomer discovers supermassive black hole destroying a star
Jennifer Matarese interviews Carnegie Astronomer Tom Holoien about this phenomenon.

NEW YORK -- A star was shredded apart by a black hole and a scientist's keen observation set off a chain of events that allowed the phenomenon to be captured on several different satellite cameras.

Carnegie Astronomer Tom Holoien was part of a group called All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN). They use a network of satellites to look for tidal disruptions. Once he spotted it, he downloaded the data from NASA's planet-hunting Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and also requested NASA's SWIFT satellite data and it confirmed that he did actually see a supermassive black hole tear a star apart.

A paper describing the findings, led by Holoien, was published in the Sept. 27, 2019, issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

So what exactly is a black hole?

"A black hole is an object that is so dense and so massive that it has gravity that is so strong that nothing can escape, not even light," Holoien said. "These are typically formed when a star reaches the end of its life and collapses, and in this case what we found was a star that got too close to a black hole and it got torn apart."

Scientists say they were happy to have data going back several months so they could see when this event began, but even more so they discovered that the area near the black hole had a change in temperature.

"We found that it was actually getting cooler early on, which is actually unexpected for one of these, we've never seen that before and honestly we're not even really sure what causes it, but we're looking into that now," Holoien said.

Earthlings, have no fear from this black hole - or others.

"No black hole is, at the moment, any danger to the earth. We are about 26,000 light years away from the super massive black hole in our own galaxy and you need to get very close to have any effect on a star, like in this case, so we're not in any danger and we won't be for any time, as long as we know," Holoien said.

This phenomenon is very rare. It only happens about once every 10,000 to 100,000 years in a galaxy the size of our own Milky Way.

You can learn more about black holes by following @NASAUniverse and #BlackHoleWeek on Twitter and Facebook.