An artist's depiction of a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole surrounded the rotating leftovers of a star that was ripped apart by the tidal forces of the black hole. An artist's depiction of a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole surrounded the rotating leftovers of a star that was ripped apart by the tidal forces of the black hole. An artist's depiction of a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole surrounded the rotating leftovers of a star that was ripped apart by the tidal forces of the black hole. (Photo: ESO, ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser)

The brightest flash of light ever recorded now has an explanation

This record-setting event shook up the astronomy world. Now, scientists think they've solved the mystery.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, reality and science fiction collided in a tremendous bright light that had astronomers baffled.

OK, it wasn't that long ago – just back in June 2015. But it was indeed baffling: scientists said it was the brightest flash of light ever recorded and, as scientists are wont to do, went to work immediately on trying to explain it.

Only it wasn't so simple this time. Previously, when observatories pick up an intense flash of light, it could be explained pretty clearly and quickly: a supernova just exploded. This time, however, there was no supernova. What could have caused this record-breaking cosmic event?

Fast forward to this week. A new study, just published in the journal Nature Astronomy by scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, reports that the burst was caused by the destruction of a star consumed by a black hole at the center of a distant galaxy.

The brightest flash of light in the cosmos could be a rare event involving a star and a supermassive black hole, scientists said.The brightest flash of light in the cosmos could be a rare event involving a star and a supermassive black hole, scientists said. (Photo: Weizmann Institute of Science)

"When a star passes within the tidal radius of a supermassive black hole, it will be torn apart," the researchers wrote. "The rapid spin and high black hole mass can explain the high luminosity of this event."

The explosion, named ASASSN-15lh, happened about 3.8 billion light-years from Earth. And if you really want to know just how bright this light was, here's some perspective: the flash gave off about 570 billion times more light than the sun does at its peak.

Giorgos Leloudas, a postdoctoral fellow at Israel's Weizmann, teamed up with his professor, Avishay Gal-Yam, to examine the cosmic event. He said the discovery demonstrates that "tidal disruption events show a much larger diversity than what we knew before, and that they can reach extreme luminosities."

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