What was initially recorded as the brightest supernova ever has now been discovered to be a star being swallowed by a giant black hole.
Scientists believe that the event occurred after the star passed too close to the black hole, getting caught in its gravitational pull. In findings published in the Nature Astronomy journal, scientists detail how the star was subsequently ripped apart, a phenomenon known in astronomy as a “tidal disruption event”.
At the time, scientists initially believed that it was a supernova – what happens when a star explodes and dies – and recorded it as being the brightest supernova ever seen. However, having now studied the event for months and gathering data from the Hubble telescope, scientists are convinced it was the workings of a black hole.
Black holes are areas in space where the gravity is so strong, that even light cannot escape. The largest type of black hole is referred to as ‘supermassive’. Scientists believe that this black hole had the mass “at least 100m times that of the sun”.
Professor Stephen Smartt from Queen’s University in Belfast was involved in solving the supernova mystery, and explains the density of black holes, “If you could take every person on earth and squeeze them on to a teaspoon – that would be the density of a neutron star, or neutron star material, and a black hole is probably 10 times denser than that,” he told the BBC. “It’s an object that is dense than any known matter that we can see or test in the universe.”
To date, this type of event has only been observed 10 times, adding to its rarity.