UT researchers conclude black hole caused star to explode

Katie Keenan

Six years ago, UT researchers witnessed an exploding star that they now believe was ripped apart by a black hole after further analysis. 

A small Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment at the McDonald Observatory at Fort Davis captured a photo of a bright light in January 2009, which was caused by the explosion. UT researchers initially mistook the blast for a super luminous supernovae. The team of scientists nicknamed the phenomenon “Dougie,” after a “South Park” character.

The ROTSE Supernova Verification Project uses the small telescope to look for newly discovered stars. Such phenomena are captured via photographs taken using advanced telescopes, reaching deep into space. This process is known as “time domain astronomy”, according to J. Craig Wheeler, a UT astronomy professor who helped make the discovery. 

The ROTSE telescope used to capture the black hole and star collision is smaller than most telescopes, Wheeler said, and his team members were surprised when it discovered “Dougie.”

Upon further examination over six years of research, Wheeler determined “Dougie” was, in fact, caused by the star’s collision with a black hole.

“It just didn’t have the right characteristics of an ordinary supernova explosion,” said Wheeler. “We ruled out everything else we could think of.” 

With the help of Harvard post-doctorate astrophysicist James Guillochon, the UT team used advanced computer software systems to create a wide range of possible scenarios related to the supernova’s destruction. At the conclusion of their research, the experts decided the black hole theory best explained the phenomenon.

“It’s not the nail in the casket, but we’re pretty sure about what we’ve discovered,” Wheeler said. 

The lead author of the project, Jozsef Vinko, said this event has probably never been witnessed before. He also added that such events are extremely rare, with no way to predict whether a similar interaction between a star and a black hole will ever occur again.