Groundbreaking Discovery: Astronomers Observe Supermassive Black Hole Devouring Star Just 137 Million Light Years Away
Astronomers have made a groundbreaking discovery by detecting a supermassive black hole devouring a star just 137 million light years away from Earth, the closest such event ever observed by humans. The flash of light released by this cataclysm was detected by NASA’s NEOWISE space telescope in 2014, and its location and light emissions were unusual, hinting at a large unseen population of similar events. The black hole, designated ZTF20abrbeie, has since been affectionately dubbed “Scary Barbie” by astronomers due to its anomalous characteristics. It is the closest tidal disruption event (TDE) yet observed and occurred in a galaxy that is actively forming new stars, which could mean that many more TDEs are happening in these types of galaxies.
TDEs occur when a star is pulled apart by the gravity of a black hole. Most of the light they emit arrives in the form of X-rays and optical light, but astronomers have recently found that they can detect infrared signals from a TDE, which can penetrate dust that would otherwise obscure the event from view. The discovery of Scary Barbie indicates that there may be many more similar events occurring in galaxies across the universe, which have previously evaded our observations.
Scary Barbie is also significant because it is orders of magnitude brighter and more energetic than any such transient event ever observed. While most transient objects last for weeks or months, this one has so far lasted over two years and may continue to be visible for years to come. According to Danny Milisavljevic, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy in Purdue University’s College of Science, Scary Barbie is “the most energetic phenomenon I have ever encountered.”
The discovery of Scary Barbie highlights the need for more infrared observations of galaxies to search for TDEs and expand our understanding of these rare and powerful events. It also demonstrates that current surveys using optical and X-ray telescopes are only providing a partial census of the total population of TDEs. As Suvi Gezari, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, notes, “using infrared surveys to catch the dust echo of obscured TDEs…has already shown us that there is a population of TDEs in dusty, star-forming galaxies that we have been missing.”
The study of Scary Barbie and other TDEs provides a glimpse into the mysteries and wonders of the universe, reminding us that there are still many unknown phenomena waiting to be uncovered. As Milisavljevic notes, “discoveries like this really open our eyes to the fact that we are still uncovering mysteries and exploring wonders in the universe – things no one has ever seen before.
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