A bright flash of light was observed by the ROTSE 111b telescope on January 21, 2009. After many years, scientists speculate that this light was from a star being swallowed by a black hole.
This event is being covered in The Astrophysical Journal, detailing the last light of a dying star.
During an awe-inspiring event called the ROTSE3 J120847.9+430121, part of the RSVP (ROTSE Supernova Verification Project), several explanations for the mysterious light were thrown into consideration.
The burst of light could have been either a superluminous supernova, a gamma-ray burst, two neutron stars merging or a black hole enjoying a nice lunch of star cuisine. All were good options as to where this sudden burst of light came from. All options were considered thoroughly.
First of all, the event was 2.9 billion light-years away. The observed bright light from that distance would translate into 22.5, absolute magnitude. This event proved to be brighter than the entire Milky Way itself, even brighter than the most luminous supernova. Wow!
After 6 years of study and consultation, scientists have concluded that the event falls into the last description, a black hole eating a star. This event has been knicknamed “Dougie” from a character from South Park.
The main reason why scientists believe this event occurred resulted from a star-eating black hole is because of Dougie’s fading afterglow. The reason why it took so long to positively identify this event, however, is because Dougie had a much different appearance compared to other star-eating black hole events from the past.
Study co-author from the University of Texas in Austin, J. Craig Wheeler states, “This may have been a tidal disruption event.”
Apparently, as a star comes near a black hole, it is pulled harder from one side, distorting the star’s shape. As the black hole’s pull grows stronger, the star can even become elongated before being destroyed. It’s not always a rapid process and the star becomes disc-shaped long before the black hole swallows all traces of the object.
The star does fight for its life, and it emits high levels of radiation as it is being torn apart. This is not because the star is particularly large, it is because the black hole is rather modest, only about the mass of a billion suns, compared to the center of our universe, which is much larger. It’s a fight to the death, it seems, but, unfortunately, the star always loses.
Image credit: Mark A. Garlick, University of Warwick
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