IT ALL STARTED WITH A TWEET
The first observation of the star on its path to destruction was made by a team at the Ohio State University, using an optical telescope in Hawaii. That team announced its discovery on Twitter in early December 2014.
After reading about the event, van Velzen contacted an astrophysics team led by Rob Fender at the University of Oxford in Great Britain. That group used radio telescopes to follow up as fast as possible. They were just in time to catch the action.
By the time it was done, the international team had data from satellites and ground-based telescopes that gathered X-ray, radio and optical signals, providing a “multi-wavelength” portrait of this event.
It helped that the galaxy in question is closer to Earth than those studied previously in hopes of tracking a jet emerging after the destruction of a star. This galaxy is about 300 million light years away, while the others were at least three times farther away. One light year is 5.88 trillion miles.
The first step for the international team was to rule out the possibility that the light was from a pre-existing expansive swirling mass called an “accretion disk” that forms when a black hole is sucking in matter from space. That helped to confirm that the sudden increase of light from the galaxy was due to a newly trapped star.
“The destruction of a star by a black hole is beautifully complicated, and far from understood,” van Velzen says. “From our observations, we learn the streams of stellar debris can organize and make a jet rather quickly, which is valuable input for constructing a complete theory of these events.”
Support for this study came from multiple sources, including NASA, the Netherlands Foundation for Scientific Research (NOW), the European Research Council, the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Australian Research Council.
Featured Image Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr