An amazing piece of video for you today, courtesy of NASA, the Johns Hopkins University, and the University of California, Santa Cruz.
It’s thought that most, if not all galaxies have a massive black hole at their centers. Given how many stars are packed densely in the region surrounding these black holes, it only makes sense that occasionally one would wander too close and get gobbled up — but the universe is big, and time is long, so you have to be diligent to catch a black hole “in the act.”
In June of 2010, astronomers were able to do just that, with a pair of telescopes — one in space (NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer), and one on the summit of Haleakala in Hawaii (Pan-STARRS1). To find it, the astronomers had to monitor hundreds of thousands of galaxies scattered over the entire night sky, looking for a bright flare of ultraviolet light.
Once they spotted a flare, they had to measure and characterize it for over a year in order to make sure that what they were seeing wasn’t an odd supernova or some other less-exotic phenomena. Now that they’ve done their “due diligence,” they’re presenting their work to the public via the journal Nature, and this press release.
Accompanying the press release is a computer simulation of a star being tidally shredded by a black hole. Some of its gas falls into the black hole, while some is ejected at high speeds into space) — just as happened at the galaxy they spotted, some 2.7 billion light years distant (direct link).
The simulation shows a star about the size of the Sun and its too-close encounter with a black hole a million times more massive than itself. The areas in white are regions of highest gas density, with progressively redder colors corresponding to lower-density regions. The blue dot pinpoints the black hole’s location. The inset is a close-up of the region around the black hole.