A star passed by the black hole close enough that some of its mass fell into the black hole’s gravitational grip, but far enough that the star managed to get away still intact with minor damage.
A team of astronomers spotted the event in a galaxy about 650 million light years from Earth, which is relatively close by for cosmic distances.
Although they couldn’t see the star directly, the team observed a flare of light that resulted from the black hole’s measly meal, which was a portion of gas about the size of Jupiter. While that’s big compared to Earth, Jupiter is still one thousand times smaller than our sun.
In reality, a black hole will only end up consuming a whole star once every 10,000 to 100,000 years, according to Ohio State Astronomer Christopher Kochanek, who is a co-author on the paper describing the team’s discovery published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal astronomical Society.
This discovery is the result of a larger project called the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN, pronounced assassin), which is led by scientists at Ohio State.
The ASAS-SN survey is searching for bursts of light in the sky that are associated with stellar explosions called supernovae. At first, the team thought their event was a supernova but upon closer inspection discovered otherwise. Their find could hep us understand whether these events of black holes shaving mere slivers off stars over billions of years is how they grow, or if there’s something else feeding these cosmic beasts.
Check out the video below where the lead scientist explains the team’s results.