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Leading Queen's astronomers in Belfast cast light on explosive star

By Staff Reporter

Astronomers at Queen's University Belfast have helped solve the mystery of how an extraordinarily brilliant point of light was created in a galaxy far, far away.

And the answer is not totally unrelated to Star Wars - the light thought to be from the brightest supernova ever seen is believed to have been created by a rapidly spinning black hole ripping apart a passing star that came too close.

The black hole had a mass of at least 100 million times that of the sun.

This is an extreme and very rare event and was categorised as a superluminous supernova - the explosion of an extremely massive star at the end of its life.

It was twice as bright as the previous record holder - and at its peak was 20 times brighter than the total light output of the entire Milky Way.

Professor Stephen Smartt from Queen's University's Astrophysics Research Centre is the lead and principal investigator of the project at the European Southern Observatory, which gathered the crucial data.

Professor Smartt said: "This object puzzled us for months. Our international team has experts who work on the most extreme physics in the universe and the initial explanation of a supernova just didn't seem to fit all the data comfortably.

"The team studied all the data carefully, kept observing, applied models and physics and considered all possible explanations. This is an excellent example of international collaboration and scientific team work, ably led by Giorgos Leloudas."

Dr Leloudas of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel said: "Our results indicate that the event was probably caused by a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole as it destroyed a low-mass star."

In this scenario, the extreme gravitational forces of a supermassive black hole, located in the centre of the host galaxy, ripped apart a sun-like star that wandered too close - something only observed about 10 times before. In the process, the star was "spaghettified" and some of the material was converted into huge amounts of radiated light.

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