Scientists Watch a Black Hole Eat a Star

  • Astronomers have witnessed a tidal disruption event, where a star whose material was shredded by a nearby supermassive black hole releases an bright flash of light.
  • The TDE is helping scientists understand more about the gruesome spaghettification process.
  • The flare occurred just 215 million light-years away from Earth, closer than any other previously observed tidal disruption event.

    Astronomers have spotted a rare and radiant pulse of light—the last gasp of a dying star that has been sucked toward the center of a supermassive black hole and shredded into sinuous strings of stardust. This process is delightfully called spaghettification, but make no mistake: it’s gruesome.

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    “When a black hole devours a star, it can launch a powerful blast of material outwards that obstructs our view,” Samantha Oates, an astronomer at the University of Birmingham, said in a statement. “This happens because the energy released as the black hole eats up stellar material propels the star’s debris outwards.”

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    The researchers used the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope and New Technology Telescope in Chile, the Las Cumbres Observatory global telescope network, and the Neil Gehrel’s Swift Satellite to monitor the flare, which they dubbed AT2019qiz. They tracked AT2019qiz for six months, making observations in optical, ultraviolet, X-ray, and radio, as it brightened and then eventually faded. The scientists published their findings in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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    At just 215 million light-years from Earth, AT2019qiz is the closest such flare ever observed. The scientists believe the star at the center of the cataclysmic event was at one point roughly the same mass as our sun. It lost about half its mass once the supermassive black hole, which is around a million times more massive than the star, began slurping it up.

    As the stellar material is pulled from the star, it begins to wrap around the black hole, surrounding it in a curtain of dust. In some cases, the swirling debris can reach speeds of up to 10,000 kilometers per second. When the material is finally devoured by the black hole, it generates a powerful flare observable to Earth’s powerful telescopes.

    The new event could provide scientists with an especially critical view of this incredibly destructive process.

    “This unique ‘peek behind the curtain’ provided the first opportunity to pinpoint the origin of the obscuring material and follow in real time how it engulfs the black hole,” Kate Alexander, a NASA Einstein Fellow at Northwestern University, said in the statement.

    Tidal disruption events like AT2019qiz are extremely rare. Scientists have only observed around 100 tidal disruption events (or suspected tidal disruption events) since 1999, according to the Open TDE Catalogue at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. A team detected the first tidal disruption event candidates in 1990 using the joint German Aerospace Center-NASA satellite ROSAT.

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