Astronomers witnessed a massive black hole gulping down a star rich in helium gas through Nasa's Galaxy Evolution Explorer, a space-based observatory supported by several ground telescopes.
Super massive black holes which weigh millions to billions times more than the sun, lurk in the centre of most galaxies. These hefty monsters are just like carnivorous animals - tigers or lions. They wait quietly until an unsuspecting victim, such as a star, wanders close enough to get ripped apart by their powerful gravitational clutches.
Astronomers found that the star which was gulped down by the huge black hole resided in a galaxy that is 2.7 billion light-years away from earth. They claim that the star was looping around the black hole in a highly elliptical orbit, which is similar to a comet's elongated orbit around the sun.
Astronomers believe that on one of its close approaches, the star was stripped of its puffed-up atmosphere by the black hole's powerful gravity. The stellar remains continued the journey around the centre, until it ventured even closer to the black hole to face its ultimate end.
"When the star is ripped apart by the gravitational forces of the black hole, some part of the star's remains falls into the black hole while the rest is ejected at high speeds," said Suvi Gezari, astronomer at the Johns Hopkins University.
"We are seeing the glow from the stellar gas falling into the black hole over time. We're also witnessing the spectral signature of the ejected gas, which we find to be mostly helium. It is like we are gathering evidence from a crime scene. Because there is very little hydrogen and mostly helium in the gas, we detect from the carnage that the slaughtered star had to have been the helium-rich core of a stripped star."
The study claims that by just measuring the increase in brightness, they could calculate the black hole's mass to be several million suns.
"The longer the event lasted, the more excited we got, because we realised this is either a very unusual supernova or an entirely different type of event, such as a star being ripped apart by a black hole," said Armin Rest, astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute.
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