Skip to main content Skip to navigation
CAS in the Media Arts and Sciences Media Headlines

Death of a star reveals midsize black hole lurking in a dwarf galaxy

An intermediate-mass black hole lurking undetected in a dwarf galaxy revealed itself to astronomers when it gobbled up an unlucky star that strayed too close. The shredding of the star, known as a “tidal disruption event” or TDE, produced a flare of radiation that briefly outshone the combined stellar light of the host dwarf galaxy and could help scientists better understand the relationships between black holes and galaxies.

The flare was captured by astronomers with the Young Supernova Experiment (YSE), a survey designed to detect cosmic explosions and transient astrophysical events. An international team led by scientists at UC Santa Cruz, the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, and Washington State University reported the discovery in a paper published November 10 in Nature Astronomy.

This discovery has created widespread excitement because astronomers can use tidal disruption events not only to find more intermediate-mass black holes in quiet dwarf galaxies, but also to measure their masses.

Vivienne Baldassare.

“One of the biggest open questions in astronomy is currently how supermassive black holes form,” said coauthor Vivienne Baldassare, professor of physics and astronomy at WSU.

Find out more
The Daily


Ask Dr. Universe: How did life begin?

The universe is a big place. Thinking about how we fit into it is part of what makes humans (and cats like me) special.

Afshin Khan.

I talked about your question with my friend Afshin Khan who studied astrobiology and environmental science at Washington State University. Astrobiologists explore how life began. They also look for signs of life outside Earth.

Khan told me your question is a huge mystery.

“We have very good ideas about what could have happened,” she said. “In different labs around the world, we’ve gotten very close to simulating some of those conditions. But simulations can only get so close to what was happening on early Earth.”

We have a good sense of when life started. We know Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. The oldest fossils on Earth are stromatolites, basically layers of rock and microbes. They’re at least 3.5 billion years old. So, there must have been living microbes on Earth at that time.

Find out more

Dr. Universe

‘These images belong to all of us’: Spokane-area astronomers celebrate out-of-this-world footage from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope recently revealed a batch of out-of-this world images.

Webb’s First Deep Field is an infrared image that covers a miniscule patch of sky visible from the Southern hemisphere. The image illustrates the early universe with thousands of shimmering galaxies that help fill the celestial void. It is the highest resolution infrared image of the early universe that has ever existed.

One image shown in the release Monday is a spectrum of exoplanet WASP-96 b. The data that the Webb telescope found from WASP-96 b gives evidence to the existence of water vapor on the gas giant.

Vivienne Baldassare.

Vivienne Baldassare, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Washington State University, specializes in black holes in small galaxies and is going to use the Webb Telescope images to help with her research. Baldassare, along with a team of distinguished scientists, was awarded observations to study nearby smaller galaxies and other stellar systems to search for black holes, she said.

“This is my life’s work to try to study this population of black holes in small galaxies,” she said. Astronomy and a lot of different science fields are hugely collaborative efforts, and I love being part of a group that’s working together to try to answer these questions.”

Baldassare is jubilant about being able to further her research, but she said she believes there’s more to these pictures than meets the eye.

“The telescope is an amazing international collaboration. These images belong to all of us,” Baldassare said.

Find out more


Astronomers identify likely location of medium-sized black holes

Vivienne Baldassare.

Intermediate-mass black holes are notoriously hard to find but a new study indicates there may be some at the center of dense, star clusters located throughout the universe.

“One of the biggest open questions in black hole astrophysics right now is how do black holes form that are between the size of a stellar mass black hole and a supermassive black hole,” said Vivienne Baldassare, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Washington State University. “Most of the theories for their formation rely on conditions that are found only in the very early universe. We wanted to test another theory that says they can form throughout cosmic time in these really dense star clusters.”

The research team’s work not only suggests that black holes can form in nuclear star clusters but also provides a mechanism by which intermediate-sized black holes could potentially form throughout cosmic time rather than just during the first few billion years of the universe.

Find out more

Mirage News
WSU Insider 
Science Daily
Before It’s News


Ask Dr. Universe: Why does the sky turn darker in winter?

As winter gets underway here in North America, you may notice we don’t feel the sun’s rays for quite as many hours as we did in fall and summer.

Vivienne Baldassare.

To find out why this happens, I talked with my friend Vivienne Baldassare, an astronomer at Washington State University.

“Earth isn’t perfectly straight up and down,” Baldassare said. “It’s a bit tilted on its axis, more like a spinning top.”

The top half of the planet, which is known as the Northern Hemisphere, is tilted more toward the sun when it is summertime. But when it’s wintertime, that means Earth’s Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. This can make the days feel shorter, and the shortest day of the year is just around the corner.

Find out more

Ask Dr. Universe