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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.

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