It’s been a big year for black holes. Back in April, NASA gave us our first direct glimpse of an existentially terrifying gravitational event, and now, the agency has gotten another look at what one can do to a star much like our own sun.
NASA announced this week that Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (or TESS) managed to spot what’s called a tidal disruption event. In layman’s terms, that’s when a star gets a little too close to a black hole and, well, it stops being a star after that.
There’s a lot of fun space lingo at play here. NASA is calling the event ASASSN-19bt, named after the ASAS-SN telescope network that first noticed the tidal disruption back in January. Once the star got close enough to the black hole, it experienced something known as “spaghettification,” which is when an object encounters gravity so powerful that it gets stretched out like noodles.
This particular black hole is around 375 million lightyears away in the elegantly named galaxy of 2MASX J07001137-6602251. NASA estimates it weighs six million times the mass of our own sun, which happens to be comparable in size to the star that tragically lost its life to this tidal disruption event.
To be clear, this isn’t the first time humans have seen a tidal disruption event, though they are astonishingly rare. They happen somewhere between every 10,000 and 100,000 years in a comparable galaxy to our own. NASA said astronomers have seen 40 of these events, though few have been observed as early as the one TESS caught.
Any direct observation of a black hole is notable because black holes can’t really be seen, by nature. It’s a point in space where gravity is so strong that not even light can escape its grasp, but we can still observe its effects on things around it. The famous first-ever photo of a black hole earlier this year was in actuality a photo of gas gathered around a black hole.
That means we should relish any chance we get to see what a black hole can do, and be glad that it’s not happening anywhere near us.