Meet Scary Barbie: AI helped discover this supermassive black hole shredding a star
A supermassive black hole is tearing apart a distant star that is now faced with a fiery and dramatic death. The scientists who discovered it have affectionately named the black hole “Scary Barbie,” after a beloved children’s character.
The supermassive black hole ripping apart the star is one of the most energetic, luminous and transient celestial events that has been discovered, and yet, it is not exactly blazing bright in the night sky. Instead, astronomers had to unearth evidence of the star’s dying moments from a mass of telescope data where it had been hiding undetected for years.
The research on the supermassive black hole slaughtering a star has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed The Astrophysical Journal Letters, according to Purdue University.
“It’s absurd. If you take a typical supernova and multiply it a thousand times, we’re still not at how bright this is – and supernovas are among the most luminous objects in the sky. This is the most energetic phenomenon I have ever encounteredy,” said Danny Milisavljevic, co-author of the study, in a press statement. Milisavljevic is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Purdue University’s College of Science.
According to Purdue University, Milisavljevic, an expert on stellar life cycles and especially star death, noted that the data points to what can be called an extremely anomalous observation.
When it was initially observed, it was given a random name like all discovered objects. It was called ZTF20abrbeie. Based on its alphanumeric designation, researchers gave it the name Scary Barbie. The Scary part was added because, according to Milisavljevic, “it’s so much of an outlier; its characteristics are terrifying.”
“We think a very supermassive black hole pulled in a star and ripped it apart. The forces around a black hole, called tidal disruption, pull other objects apart in a process called ‘spaghettification.’ We think that’s what happened, but on extreme time scales: The most massive of black holes ripping apart a massive star. The duration is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and it produced the most luminous transient in the universe,” added Bhagya Subrayan, a co-author, in a press statement. Subrayan is a graduate student at Purdue University.
Datasets indicated that Scary Barbie was first observed in 2020. If that was the case, and the supermassive black hole is so bright, why did astronomers only discover it now? Well, in a way, it was hiding in plain sight.
Scary Barbie is immensely bright but it is also exceptionally far away in a “neglected” corner of the sky.
The researchers discovered it using an AI engine called Recommender Engine For Intelligent Transient Tracking (REFITT) in Milisavljevic’s lab. The AI engine looks through observations from many different telescopes around the world.
According to Milisavljevic, REFITT uses big data analytics to search through millions of alerts and finds out what interesting things astronomers might want to look at closer. Big data analytics is really useful at finding things when astronomers can precisely tell them what to look for.
But for this particular example, the algorithm did not even know what to look for, “it doesn’t even have a template,” says Milisavljevic. But REFITT did find it.
Not only is Scary Barbie many orders of magnitude brighter and more energetic than any such transient event scientists have recorded before, but it also seems to be lasting much longer than they usually do. While most transient objects last for weeks or months, this one seems to have lasted for more than two years.
And based on the latest data, astronomers say that it may continue to be visible for many years to come.