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A cosmic death, 2.7 billion light years away

Scott Meiklejohn, staff writer
May 5, 2012 — Astronomers have gathered the most direct evidence yet of a supermassive black hole shredding a star that wandered too close.

The star resided in a galaxy 2.7 billion light-years away
The star resided in a galaxy 2.7 billion light-years away

NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer, a space-based observatory, and the Pan-STARRS1 telescope on the summit of Haleakala in Hawaii were among the first to help identify the stellar remains.

Supermassive black holes weigh millions to billions times more than the sun. They lurk in the center of most galaxies, waiting for an unsuspecting victim - such as a star - to wander close enough. They are then ripped to shreds by the powerful gravitational clutches of the black hole.

This video is a computer simulation of the "celestial homicide", demonstrating a star being shredded by the gravity of a massive black hole. Some of the stellar debris falls into the black hole and some of it is ejected into space at high speeds.

The areas in white are regions of highest density, with lower-density regions becoming progressively redder. The tiny blue dot in the top right hand corner pinpoints the black hole’s location.

The elapsed time, almost half a year, corresponds to how long it takes for a sun-like star to be ripped apart by a black hole a million times more massive than the sun.

Astronomers have spotted these celestial homocides before, but this is the first time they have identified the victim. Using several ground and space based telescopes, a team of astronomers led by Suvi Gezari of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, identified the victim as a star rich in helium gas.

The star resided in a galaxy 2.7 billion light-years away.

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