Astronomy Blog

Share |

Astronomers Identify the Remains in a Murder

May 10, 2012; 7:02 AM ET

Astronomers have gathered the most direct evidence yet of a huge black hole shredding a star that wandered too close. NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer, a space-based observatory, and the Pan-STARRS1 telescope on the summit of Haleakala in Hawaii were among the first to help identify the stellar remains.

Supermassive black holes, weighing millions to billions times more than the Sun, lurk in the centers of most galaxies. These huge monsters lie quietly until an unsuspecting victim, such as a star, wanders close enough to get ripped apart by their powerful gravitational clutches.

Astronomers had spotted these stellar murders before, but this is the first time they have identified the victim. Using several ground- and space-based telescopes, a team of astronomers led by Suvi Gezari of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., identified the victim as a star rich in helium gas. The star resides in a galaxy 2.7 billion light-years away.

This observation gives answers to the questions what is the harsh environment around black holes like and what types of stars swirl around them. It is not the first time the unlucky star had a brush with the behemoth black hole, just the first time we have direct evidence of this encounter.

The team believes the star's hydrogen-filled envelope surrounding the core was burned off a long time ago by the same black hole. The star was likely near the end of its life. After most of its hydrogen fuel was consumed, it had become a red giant as it swelled up. Astronomers think the bloated star was looping around the black hole in a highly elliptical orbit, similar to a comet's elongated orbit around the Sun. On one of its close approaches, the star was stripped of its puffed-up atmosphere by the black hole's powerful gravity. The stellar remains continued its journey around the center, until it ventured even closer to the black hole to face its ultimate demise.

You can leave your comments, as well as be part of a community where discussions on any astronomy subject, such as light pollution, when you join AccuWeather's Astronomy Facebook fanpage by clicking here.

We are now well over 3,300 likes on Facebook. Tell your friends about this Facebook page and blog and have them weigh in on some exciting issues. We encourage open discussion and will never criticize any idea, and no negative conversation will be allowed.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or


Comments left here should adhere to the Community Guidelines. Profanity, personal attacks, and spam will not be tolerated.

More Astronomy Weather Blog

  • Comet Catalina Gazers See Strange Formation in Southwest U.S. Sky

    November 24, 2015; 3:15 PM ET

    Comet C/2013 US10 (Catalina) is now visible just above the eastern horizon before sunrise. People hoping to catch a glimpse Tuesday morning where greeted by an unexpected view. A fuel dump from a Japanese rocket made an interesting formation in the morning sky in the Southwestern states.

  • Leonids Peak Tonight; CME Heading Towards Earth

    November 17, 2015; 4:10 PM ET

    A massive magnetic filament eruption has sent a CME towards the earth. Check out an awesome video of the event. Meanwhile, we have the peak of the Leonid's meteor shower tonight.

  • A Detailed Look at the Leonids Meteor Shower Which Peaks This Week

    November 15, 2015; 6:00 PM ET

    Known for the most impressive displays of meteors in recorded history, the Leonids meteor shower is already underway. The peak of the shower is Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. A detailed look at the shower, including its amazing history are examined.

  • Space Junk to Reenter the Atmosphere

    November 12, 2015; 4:51 PM ET

    Space junk will splash down in the Indian Ocean early Friday morning. And we are going to watch it live! Check out the slooh broadcast.

  • Viewing Conditions for Peak of the Taurids

    November 11, 2015; 5:45 PM ET

    Up to the minute satellite imagery for viewing the peak of the Taurid meteor shower. But, it's a gradual peak, so the shower should continue to produce the occasional fireball for another several days. Tomorrow night's sky cover and Europe maps included.

About This Blog

Astronomy Blog
The astronomy blog, by Dave Samuhel, discusses stargazing, including how weather will affect viewing conditions of astronomical phenomenon.