Followup on the star torn apart by a black hole: Hubble picture

By Phil Plait | April 7, 2011 8:31 am

I recently wrote about a mind-boggling event: astronomers capturing what are apparently the final moments in a star’s life as it was literally torn apart by a black hole.

Today, NASA has released some new pictures of the event, including this Hubble Space Telescope shot:

[Click to embiggen.]

I know, it may not look like much at first. But remember what you’re seeing: the violent death of a star ripped apart by the gravity of a black hole… and it’s happening 3.8 billion light years away! That’s about 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers, so the fact that we can see it at all is pretty amazing. And terrifying.

In this false-color Hubble image, the galaxy and explosion are marked. Pretty much everything you see in the picture is a distant galaxy, a billion of more light years away. Normally, the host galaxy itself would appear as a dot, at best with some small amount of fuzz around it, the glow of billions of stars reduced by the incredible distance. But the dying light of the star increased the galaxy’s brightness by a lot. A whole lot.

This image (click to greatly embiggen!) is a combination of visible light (white), ultraviolet (purple), and X-rays (yellow and red) from NASA’s Swift observatory, the satellite that first detected the explosion. While the spikes are not real — they’re just an optical effect from the telescope itself — it still speaks to the drama of what we’re seeing.

And so just what are we seeing?

Imagine: what may have been a normal star not much different than the Sun was orbiting the center of this distant galaxy, very close indeed to the middle. In the core of every big galaxy there lies a monster: a supermassive black hole which may have millions or even billions of times the Sun’s mass. This one at the heart of this unnamed galaxy may have topped off at half a million solar masses.

The gravity from such an object is fierce. But worse, the strength of gravity fades with distance. That may seem like a saving grace – being farther from a black hole means its gravity is diminished – but in fact that’s what spelled doom for this star, because that drop in strength can be very sharp for a black hole. As the star approached this bottomless pit, the side of the star facing the black hole was pulled far harder than the other side of the star, which may have been a million or more kilometers farther away from the black hole. This change in pull stretched the star — this stretching is called a "tide", and is essentially the same thing that causes tides on the Earth from the Moon’s gravity… and when the star wandered too close to the black hole, the strength of that pull became irresistible, overcoming the star’s own internal gravity.

In a flash, the star was torn apart, and octillions of tons of ionized gas burst outward! This material whipped around the black hole, forming a disk of plasma called an accretion disk. Magnetic fields, friction, and turbulence superheated the plasma, and also focused twin beams of matter and energy which blasted out from the poles of the disk, away from the black hole itself. The energy stored in these beams is incredible, crushing our imagination into dust: for a time, they shone with the light of a trillion Suns!

As it happens, the disk that formed around the black hole was face-on to us, so one of those beams was essentially aimed directly at us. Had we been in that galaxy at the time and in the path of that beam, well, the Earth would’ve been in a bad way*. But from our distance of nearly four billion light years, the flash of light was only bright enough to see with big telescopes.

And this event is not over. As the material whirls around the black hole, turbulence and other forces inside the disk can cause the brightness to change. There have been several flares, and while it had been fading for a few days, suddenly on April 3rd the overall brightness increased by a factor of five! Astronomers will continue to watch this spectacular event for quite some time, certainly until it finally fades from even the sight of powerful telescopes like Hubble.

Over the years I’ve studied some of the most energetic events in the Universe: exploding stars, gamma-ray bursts, magnetar flares. These cosmic blasts are so huge they are impossible to fully grasp with our puny minds — understand them, yes, but truly grok them, no — and it’s amazing to me that there are still other things out there that can release such devastating amounts of energy.

And I’m very glad they happen so very far away!

Image credits: Hubble: NASA/ESA/A. Fruchter (STScI); Swift: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler; Jet illustration: Don Dixon/NASA/JPL-Caltech.


* And by "bad" I mean very very very very very very very bad.


Related posts:

Astronomers may have witnessed a star torn apart by a black hole
Cosmic X-ray blast temporarily blinded NASA satellite
Anniversary of a cosmic blast
No, a nearby supernova won’t wipe us out
New burst vaporizes cosmic distance record

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (64)

Links to this Post

  1. Is It Just Me? - Page 108 - Tech Support Forums - TechIMO.com | April 7, 2011
  2. Star torn apart by a black hole | April 7, 2011
  3. Space telescopes observe unusual cosmic blast – The Associated Press | Flagstaff News and Weather | April 7, 2011
  4. Powerful Space Explosion May Herald Star’s Death By Black Hole – Space.com | Flagstaff News and Weather | April 7, 2011
  5. Powerful space explosion may herald star’s death – Mother Nature Network | Flagstaff News and Weather | April 7, 2011
  6. Star-Eating Black Hole May Be Producing Universe’s Biggest Blast – Science AAAS | Flagstaff News and Weather | April 7, 2011
  7. Getting Sucked Into A Black Hole Of The Day - TDW Geeks | April 7, 2011
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  9. Followup on the star torn apart by a black hole: Hubble picture | Bad Astronomy | April 8, 2011
  10. Hubble Image Of A Black Hole TEARING Apart A Star. So Good. « OMEGA-LEVEL.NET - | April 8, 2011
  11. The brightest space explosion in history | Olympia Connections | April 9, 2011
  12. Followup on the star torn apart by a black hole: Hubble picture | Bad Astronomy : The Space Science | April 10, 2011
  13. Anonymous | April 11, 2011
  14. Followup on the star torn apart by a black hole: Hubble picture « Wobbits | April 11, 2011
  15. Followup On Star Torn By Black Hole « Hany Rashwan | April 11, 2011
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  19. Progrés de la science | La création | April 19, 2011
  20. Симфония всплеска GRB 110328A « KaBucha – Информационно – развлекательный портал. Самые неординарные новости сети. | April 21, 2011
  1. GeekBoston

    By very bad, you mean worse than crossing-the-streams-bad, right? :)

    Is there any way to determine the rate at which the material in the disk will get absorbed?

  2. Scott pugh

    How wide is the beam?

  3. Firemancarl

    Posts like this one are one of the BIG reasons I love your blog.

  4. CB

    How wide is the beam?

    That’s a good question! I’m sure it’d be really, really big by the time it reached us though. Like, at least bigger than our galaxy, since to merely be Milky-way-diameter at 3.8 billion light years out that’d be a divergence of 0.0008 degrees!

  5. katy lavallee

    Phil,

    So, how close would it have to have been to cause any — even minor — adverse effects on Earth?

  6. DrFlimmer

    @ #2 GeekBoston

    Is there any way to determine the rate at which the material in the disk will get absorbed?

    Yes, the Eddington limit.

    It basically says that an object cannot shine with more “power” than it contains in its gravitational potential. Otherwise the radiative pressure would blow away the material.
    In other words: In order for the black hole to gobble material it should do it slow enough to avoid that the material is heated too much, because then the radiation from the heat would blow away the material and the black hole would have to starve.

    @ #3 Scott pugh

    How wide is the beam?

    One normally assumes an opening angle of a few degrees, like 5° or so.

  7. Adam English

    Just before I red this article, I was outside enjoying the warming NH weather, and I looked t the Sun. After the burn, I thought to myself, “Wow. There is so much energy there just glancing at it from millions of miles away causes pain. And our Sun is small.”

  8. Joel

    So supposing that something like this happened at the centre of our Galaxy, but the beams were oriented as far away from us as possible, what would be the effects and what would we see?

  9. Ron1

    Relativistic beaming … the real world is just so cool. Science, wow!

  10. Oops! Left off a trio of “0”s in my translation from light years to km. I fixed it.

  11. Quatguy

    And when you say “This event is not over”, what you are really saying is that the event ended about 3.8 billion years ago?

  12. DrFlimmer

    @ Quatguy:

    It’s practically the same. Since we see the event NOW, it is not over for us. In the galaxy it ended a few billion years ago. And the poor photons never ever felt anything of it (for them, no time has passed by since they’ve been launched from that system until they hit our telescopes). So, it doesn’t matter how you say it. It should be clear anyhow.

  13. OtherRob

    @Phil, when you say, “In a flash, the star was torn apart…”, how long do you mean? Seconds? Minutes? Years? I ask because in astronomy a “young” star is *millions* of years old. ;)

    Thanks.

  14. My brain has been crushed into a singularity by this post. I have been reduced to an insignificant speck before the incomprehensibly awesome power of the cosmos. All that I could ever hope to do in this life has been revealed for the cosmic joke that it is. Thank you sir, I’ll have another!

  15. I have a question similar to Katy @7 and Joel @11: if it did happen in the Milky Way, given that we’re out in one of the arms and not in the path of a jet, how massive would the gobbled-up star have to be to make it seriously uncomfortable for us?

  16. amphiox

    Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but this event, although it was detected initially as a GRB with equipment meant to monitor GRBs, mechanistically wouldn’t it actually be sort of like a mini-quasar?

  17. Thanks for keeping up with this, Phil. It’s a really fascinating story.

  18. Thameron

    So how does this event stack up energetically against your garden variety supernova? They too can outshine a galaxy as I recall.

  19. Tony Colalillo

    And by “bad” I mean very very very very very very very bad.

    ——————————————————————————–
    You may be short a few ‘bad’s in that statement. ;)

  20. Tony Colalillo

    And by “bad” I mean very very very very very very very bad.

    ——————————————————————————–
    You may be short a few “bad”s in that statement.;)

  21. Mike

    First, ‘Grok’? One of my all time favorite books!

    Second, The story is awesome, I have always been interested in astronomy nad it never fails to amaize me as to the discoveries that are being made, my brain began to hurt after I read the article.

    Third, In the area of NH that I live in the skys are quite dark and my 2 year old grandson was out with me last night and he ‘discovered’ the moon, pointed and asked, ‘dat?’

  22. Ryan the Biologist

    “Imagine: what may have been a normal star not much different than the Sun was orbiting the center of this distant galaxy, very close indeed to the middle.”

    You aren’t fooling me Phil! A star that is of similar age and size as our Sun wouldn’t be found in the center of a galaxy! It would be one of those highly-metallic extreme Population I stars like “Of” stars or blue giants.

    Pfft. Trying to pull the wool over our eyes…

  23. Mr. Fractal

    The Creation was not created by science but by God so you may want to look at this from a spiritual point of view. Perhaps something new and big is just begining in the Universe?
    Meher Baba and Edgar Cayce and Nostridamus and The Bible all say something intense will be taking place in our time.This is just the begining of these changes.

  24. Jo Diggs

    Wow, OK those black holes are downright scary dude.

    http://www.being-anon.int.tc

  25. réalta fuar

    This is an interesting event but, as usual, the disaster porn implications are hyped to a ludicrous extent. This isn’t even a particularly BRIGHT transient gamma ray source. It’s interesting NOT because of its total energy but because it’s a tidal disruption event and it IS BRIGHT among that sample. Its x-ray flares seem to be on the order of 5 magnitudes or about 100 times brighter than its quiescent state and the timescales of those flares are interesting. That’s also large, but lots of flare stares brighten differentially by larger amounts than this (though their TOTAL energies are many, many, uh, MANY orders of magnitude less.)
    To answer the question many have asked here, if this object went off in OUR galactic center (about 8.4 kilo-parsecs away), and we were dead center in the beam, you most likely wouldn’t notice it unless you were a professional astronomer. If it was 8 or 10 times closer, it MIGHT (the total energies in the different bands are hard to get at from the so far published data) have a very significant effect on the earth’s ozone layer etc.
    So yeah, if I were interested in blazers, I’d be excited by this. But NOT by the potential for a 2012 type apocalypse! Look to those old standards, a collision with an asteroid or long period comet, to get your disaster porn fix for the day (or watch a very bad Star Trek movie).
    To answer Thameron’s question above: the total energy is probably roughly equivalent to a Type 1a supernova, to within a factor of a few times 10.

  26. Thameron

    @33. réalta fuar

    Thanks. Context is always appreciated.

  27. J.F.

    I’ll bring the marshmallows !

  28. Black Hole Sun

    won’t you come, and wash away the rain?

  29. anon

    @ Mr. Fractal – Really? Ugh… *slaps forehead*

  30. KAMEHAMEHAAAAAAAA!!!

    …What? I know I can’t be the only one who thought of this.

  31. kmh5c_mtsu_s11

    Those are actually very beautiful images. Terrifying, but beautiful. My brain imploded at 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers portion of this post. I love Hubble images, false-color or not, they always put things into perspective. Even though this event is far away, it’s something could easily happen here, on a different magnitude. I feel like an idiot for this part, but your explanation of the tide on the star was the first time I’ve ever heard the explanation of WHY the moon effects the tides on Earth. Seriously, how do I know what an accretion disk is, but not that? We can just forget this part, right? Right. It’s also very scary, as you mentioned, to think about being in that galaxy at the time of the event. Just how bad is the bad here? Are we talking burned to a crisp? Pulverized? Vaporized?

    Are those flares being caused by other objects “falling” into the black hole? I feel like I’m full of incredibly dumb questions on this one, but as much as I really do love science it’s never been something I’ve been able to “truly grok.”

    How much closer would this have to be for it to be a danger to us? I’m glad to be as far away as we are, but I think I’m still trying to wrap my head around that 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers again. I think I met my match on this one though.

  32. Ben

    Firstly to check my understanding: The accretion disk formed from the remains of the star, ‘centred’ around the black hole?
    If that’s the case, then these massive beams of energy are in fact ‘escaping’ from the black hole, all the energy we’re observing is.
    It’d be nice to see an illustration/cross section of were these phenomena are occurring relative the black holes event horizon.

  33. Don Alexander

    @amphiox: Almost correct, sir!

    Indeed Bloom et al. titled the GCN which presented the model as “… mini-blazar analogy” – blazar, because we are looking right into the jet.

    @réalta fuar: “Its x-ray flares seem to be on the order of 5 magnitudes or about 100 times brighter than its quiescent state and the timescales of those flares are interesting.”
    Wrong. The quiescent X-ray level of this galaxy is unknown but obviously beneath the detection limits of any existing long-term X-ray surveys. The flares peaked at 100 ct/s in Swift XRT, and the quiescent level is very likely beneath 1/1000 ct/s which is already a factor of 1E5.

    I will note the transient is not very bright in the optical – it seems to have increased by about one magnitude – and a bit brighter in the NIR. The reason very likely is significant dust extinction, which is also visible in the low energy X-rays.

    @kmh5c_mtsu_s11: “Are those flares being caused by other objects “falling” into the black hole?”
    That’s actually larger clumps… of the star. It’s being gobbled up like so much spun cotton candy. The accretion disk will be inhomogeneous and unstable, with irregular episodes of high mass-transfer rate. Hence, the flaring.

  34. Um

    “Embiggen”?

  35. Bedel

    Yotz! It’s a frelling wormhole weapon!

    But it’s a death worthy of a Dominar.

  36. OtherRob

    @Um, #44:

    “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.”

  37. Bad Wolf

    The pit is open and the Beast is free

  38. Messier Tidy Upper

    Superluminous (beyond merely brilliant) article and discovery and images. :-D

    Over the years I’ve studied some of the most energetic events in the Universe: exploding stars, gamma-ray bursts, magnetar flares. These cosmic blasts are so huge they are impossible to fully grasp with our puny minds — understand them, yes, but truly grok them, no — and it’s amazing to me that there are still other things out there that can release such devastating amounts of energy.

    ^ This! So. Very. True.

    Even “ordinary” high mass stars fall into that category.

    One fact that struck me early on when learing astronomy and yet still boggles my mind today is how bright some stars are :

    Procyon, the “Little Dogstar” is seven times brighter than our Sun emitting as much or more light and heat in a day than our Sun does in a week.

    Sirius the Dogstar and the apparent brightest star in our sky shines well over twenty times as bright as our Sun. (Alpha Canis Majoris has about 23 to 27 x the solar luminosity from memory with a few varying figures depending on source.)

    Then there is Eta Carinae, perhaps the brightest star in our whole Milky Way Galaxy that is a cosmological lighthouse beaming an unfathomable *five million* times outr Sun’s luminosity into space.

    I can’t imagine anything merely twice as brightas our Sun.

    Then there are things like that that .. yeah, read the quote above. Awe-inspiring beyond words. :-)

  39. Nick

    I wonder if the frequency of these types of events could explain the Fermi Paradox?

  40. Joel

    @48 Bad Wolf: Hah!

    “We must feed….we must feed…we must feed…”*shakes translator*”…you. If you are hungry.”

  41. flip

    #46 Bedel

    You just won the internets from me today. I thought I was the only one here who liked Farscape (and even better, Hynerian speech. Rygel is my fav)

  42. Mary

    WHERE is it?
    In which constellation, near which star(s) when we look into the night sky?
    & what are the coordinates?

    Not that we could see anything; just curious.

  43. The Eddington Limit does not exactly apply here. It’s an equilibrium thing, and this event is a bit dynamic. While there is thought to be a general maximum rate for black holes to eat things through their accretion disks, it doesn’t apply to dense objects eaten. Certainly not black hole mergers, probably not neutron star snacks, and maybe not direct hits from a star.

    There is a quasar in Virgo, 3C 273, you can see with an 8″ backyard telescope. It looks like a star. Shouldn’t be a surprise, since “quasar” comes from “Quasi-stellar”. They could have called it an “asteroid”, which means “star-like”, except that we think of asteroids as something else now.

    Radom thought. If a “plutoid” is something that is “pluto-like”, then is Pluto a “plutoid”? I’d say no. It’s not like Pluto, it is Pluto.

  44. liam

    is there a super massive black hole in the center of the milky way?

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