It’s the galactic equivalent of Christmas dinner: a black hole has torn apart a nearby star, and spent nearly a decade gorging on its remains.
The so-called tidal disruption event has lasted ten times longer than any other previous example of a star’s death, astronomers revealed in a new study.
“We have witnessed a star’s spectacular and prolonged demise,” said Dacheng Lin, a scientist at the University of New Hampshire and the study’s lead author.
“Dozens of these tidal disruption events have been detected since the 1990s, but none that remained bright for nearly as long as this one,” Lin added.
As a black hole sucks in a star, it heats up the stellar material to millions of degrees, generating a distinct X-ray flare visible across the universe.
Astronomers spotted the flare using orbiting X-ray telescopes, including NASA’s Chandra Observatory and Swift Satellite, as well as ESA’s XMM-Newton.
Located in a small galaxy about 1.8 billion light years from Earth, scientists sought to explain the event with two possible scenarios.
Either it’s the most massive star to have ever been ripped apart during such an event, or it’s the first when a small star was completely torn apart.
Aside from being pretty damn impressive, the sighting may also solve an astronomical mystery.
The X-ray suggests the black hole surpassed the Eddington limit, the balance between the outward pressure exerted by hot gas and the inward pull of gravity.
That might explain why supermassive black holes can grow faster than expected and, as a result, why they were able to grow a billion times bigger than the sun when the universe was just a billion years old.