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NASA satellite spots rare sight: A black hole absolutely shredding a star

TESS caught a homicide in the heavens on camera.

An illustration of a tidal disruption event
Robin Dienel/Carnegie Institution for Science

It's among the most violent events in the universe, and astronomers have witnessed its aftermath in historic new detail with the help of one of NASA's newest space telescopes. 

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, aka TESS, caught a rare event called a tidal disruption, which is the scientific term for a black hole ripping a star to shreds as it consumes it. It's basically pure destruction on a mind-blowing scale. 

Astronomers says this type of cosmic carnage only happens once every 10,000 to 100,000 years in a galaxy the size of the Milky Way.  Because there are billions more galaxies in the universe, scientists have been able to catch about 40 such events so far, but it's still tough to spot one.

"Imagine that you are standing on top of a skyscraper downtown, and you drop a marble off the top, and you are trying to get it to go down a hole in a manhole cover," explained Ohio State University astronomy professor Chris Kochanek in a statement Thursday. "It's harder than that."

The event was originally spotted Jan. 29 by the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae, a global network of robotic telescopes headquartered at OSU. The event was located in a part of the sky where TESS was also observing.

"TESS data let us see exactly when this destructive event, named ASASSN-19bt, started to get brighter, which we've never been able to do before," said Thomas Holoien from the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California. "The early data will be incredibly helpful for modeling the physics of these outbursts."

Actually witnessing such a rare event as it happens should help scientists better understand them. A paper describing the findings, led by Holoien, was published in The Astrophysical Journal.

"It was once thought that all [tidal disruptions] would look the same. But it turns out that astronomers just needed the ability to make more detailed observations of them," said Patrick Vallely of Ohio State, a co-author of the paper. "We have so much more to learn about how they work, which is why capturing one at such an early time and having the exquisite TESS observations was crucial."  

Holoien calls ASASSN-19bt "the new poster child" for tidal disruption research.

The supermassive black hole engaged in this bit of solar snacking is about 375 million light-years away at the center of a galaxy called 2MASX J07001137-6602251 in the constellation Volans. 

It's nice to have such a significant buffer between our own solar system and such galactic gluttony, especially when we consider that the destroyed star was probably similar in size to our own precious sun.