Created as part of a study by astronomers at Johns Hopkins University, the clip you see below this text is essentially a visualization of a phenomenon scientists had never before witnessed. Specifically, these astronomers managed to catch a black hole in the act of pulling apart a large, helium-rich star. While this kind of behavior has been well known for quite some time, this is the first time scientists have actually watched the entire process.
“This is the first time where we have so many pieces of evidence, and now we can put them all together to weigh the perpetrator — the black hole — and determine the identity of the unlucky star that fell victim to it,” said study lead Suvi Gezari. “These observations also give us clues to what evidence to look for in the future to find this type of event.”
Describing their work as similar to collecting clues at a crime scene, Gevari also believes this wealth of information will lend greater understanding to the as-yet-unknown workings of the universe as a whole. “We can measure at what rate stars are being disrupted by black holes as a function of the type of galaxy, measure the masses of the black holes, see what types of stars orbit black holes in the centers of galaxies, and try and better understand the evolution of galaxies over time,” Gevari said. “There’s a lot more to be done.”
That’s all well and good, but odds are solid that most of you clicked on this story specifically to see a star die. Thus, I direct your attention to the 26 seconds of footage below. Now, we’ll state up front that initially the clip doesn’t look like anything special, but once you comprehend what you’re actually seeing, it becomes far more awe-inspiring.
See that little blue-black dot in the upper-left corner? That’s the super-dense black hole. Nothing escapes from that, not even light. Now, notice all that orange swirly stuff? That’s the star, or more accurately, the stream of star remnants that the black hole is stripping from the unfortunate glowing sphere. Gezari’s team believes that the star had gone through the red giant phase of its existence, causing the thing to balloon to 100 times its original radius. Not only did this move it near enough the black hole to get caught in its massive gravitational pull, but this relatively rapid expansion also undermined the star’s own internal gravitational field. Thus weakened, it was only a matter of time before the entire thing was sucked into the pin point abyss.
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