Although it's estimated that a star gets destroyed by a super massive black hole once every 10,000 years, new data indicates that a star getting eaten by a black hole could be more common than that.
Astrophysicists looked over more than 20 years worth of X-ray data and discovered three specific events of specific x-ray readings that indicated three stars being sucked into a black hole.
Black holes have insatiable appetites, so when a star gets too close to one, the black hole's forces tear it to pieces. Those pieces get sucked into the black hole, eventually ending up being pulled into its event horizon (which scientists refer to as the "point of no return" because escape is impossible), which makes the black hole even bigger. Basically, a black hole is sort of like a gigantic snowball rolling downhill that picks up everything in its path, such as a star, sucking those things up and, that, in turn, makes it grow.
When a star gets ingested, the black hole emits x-ray "flares" with a specific signature. Satellites and telescopes pick up these x-rays. In this case, a team from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) and the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences looked at data from two observatories in Europe: ROSAT and XMM-Newton.
"Since a super massive black hole takes just a few years to fully absorb the captured matter of a destroyed star (typically, this makes up about a quarter of its original mass), observations repeated a decade later should detect significant dimming of an X-ray source," writes MIPT in a press release. "The researchers obtained sky survey data in the 1990s and in the 2000s, so they were able to detect objects whose brightness reduced by at least tenfold."
Although the team of astrophysicists observed what could be 24 other incidents of stars being eaten by black holes, they could only confirm three. Several methods positively identified these events, including filtering out signals from gas flares and sources of radiation that were too large.
However, the team hopes that when the Spectrum-X-Gamma space observatory launches in 2016, they will be able to positively identify more of these events. They believe that this new instrument will not only make measuring these incidents easier, but that they'll find more evidence of stars being sucked into black holes than ever before.