Belfast Telegraph

Star devoured by black hole: How QUB scientists witnessed an interstellar ‘murder’

By Lindsay Fergus

It's the stuff of movies — a huge mass, light years away in space from which nothing can escape.

But now researchers at Queen’s University Belfast have gathered the most direct evidence yet of a supermassive — the largest of the black holes — devouring a star.

“Astronomers have spotted these stellar ‘murders’ before but this is the first time they can identify the victim,” explained Professor Stephen Smartt of Queen’s Astrophysics Research Centre.

What scientists witnessed was “a star being shredded by a monster black hole”.

Using state-of-the art telescopes the astrophysicists saw a bright flash as the star was ripped apart.

Both the star and black hole were 2.7bn light years away from earth in an unnamed galaxy.

“In this case a star got too close to the black hole and was sucked right in,” said Professor Smartt. “We’re seeing the star being shredded, heated and destroyed as it swirls around the black hole.”

The discovery by the Panaromic Survey Telescope Rapid Response System (Pan-Starrs), an international science consortium which includes astronomers from Queen’s, was published in science journal, Nature.

Professor Smartt said: “As our computers sifted through terabytes of Pan-Starrs data, we found the tell-tale signature of the event. We knew it was something weird then.”

He said: “The team was looking for a bright flare in ultraviolet light from the nucleus of a galaxy with a previously dormant black hole. They found one in June 2010.”

Such is the event’s rarity that it has not been seen again since then.

Black hole factfile

  • The term ‘black hole’ was coined in 1967.
  • A black hole is invisible.
  • There are an estimated 100 billion supermassive black holes.
  • Most black holes rotate.
  • The centre of a black hole is called singularity.

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