Giant Space Explosion That's Never Been Witnessed Before Challenges What We Know About Stars and Black Holes

Supernovae are giant explosions in space, but there's a whole range of different ways those explosions can happen. NASA

Space is full of things that go bang in the night, but usually scientists just spot new explosions, not new types of explosions. Not so for the team studying a giant outburst scientists labeled PS1-10adi, which, despite the completely unassuming name, is actually terrifying—and mysterious.

Astronomers first spotted the explosion, which took place in a galaxy 2.4 billion light-years away, in 2010 and were able to study it for about three years, and they've published the results of that study in a new paper published in the journal Nature Astronomy. Over that time, it released an incredible amount of energy, producing a splotch of light from just one star that was about as bright as its entire galaxy of neighboring stars put together.

And as they looked at other results from across the sky, the astronomers also realized that PS1-10adi isn't alone. They've already identified four other explosions they think are in the same category, and they write that better understanding of what's occurring in this class of objects could change what we know about how black holes affect the world around them.

"We are in a fantastic position to pin down their origin, and this will help to piece together more clues of how these events come about," co-author Rubina Kotak, an astronomer at Tuorla University in Finland, said in a press release.

Right now, the team is entertaining two ideas about what's going on in PS1-10adi and its kin. One possibility is that a small star strayed too close to a supermassive black hole and is slowly being ripped apart. The other is that it could be a super-large star—like several hundred times the size of our sun large—star exploding. Either way, the extremely violent event produced ten times as much energy as a business-as-usual space explosion.

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"If these explosions are tidal disruption events—where a star gets sufficiently close to a supermassive black hole's event horizon and is shredded by the strong gravitational forces—then its properties are such that it would be a brand new type of tidal disruption event," co-author Erkki Kankare, a physicist at Queen's University Belfast in the U.K., said in a press release. "If they are supernova explosions, then their properties are more extreme than we have ever observed before, and are likely connected to the central environments of the host galaxies."

And it's not just a matter of the five explosions the team thinks they've spotted so far. They expect a bunch more similar observations—hundreds, they write—will come from a huge new project still under construction, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, due to turn on around 2023.