Astronomers captured rare images of a black hole shredding a star into spaghetti-like strands and devouring it
This illustration shows a star (in the foreground) undergoing spaghettification while being sucked into a supermassive black hole (in the background). M. Kornmesser / ESO
Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory observed a black hole sucking in a distant star and breaking it into thin strands of star material.
This process known as "spaghettification" occurs because of the strong gravitational force of the black holes.
At a distance of 215 million light years, this spaghettification process is the closest astronomers have ever observed.
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Astronomers have captured a rarely seen event: a flare of light caused by a black hole devouring a nearby star like spaghetti.
Observed in the Eridanus constellation, about 215 million light years from Earth, the star's destruction is the next event astronomers have ever observed.
"When an unfortunate star wanders too close to a supermassive black hole in the center of a galaxy, the extreme gravitational pull of the black hole tears the star into thin streams of material," said study author Thomas Wevers, an employee of the European Southern Observatory in Santiago, Chile in a press release about the discovery.
This process is known as a tidal disruption event - or colloquially "spaghettification," an allusion to the long, thin strands a star becomes as the black hole's gravity stretches it thinner and thinner.
When these strands are sucked into the black hole, they release a powerful beam of energy that astronomers can see even from hundreds of millions of light years away.
A screenshot from a video zooming in on the AT2019qiz tidal disruption event 215 million light years away. This phenomenon, a ray of light from a star being torn apart by a supermassive black hole, has been studied by ESO telescopes.
The researchers studied the dying star over a six-month period using tools like ESO's Very Large Telescope and the New Technology Telescope, and published their results in the Royal Astronomical Society's Monthly Notices.
Examining Spaghettification in "Unprecedented Details"
The research team discovered the star shortly after it was torn apart and observed it through ultraviolet, optical, X-ray and radio wavelengths. The combination of the star's proximity and timing enabled astronomers to study it in "unprecedented detail," according to the press release.
Although a spaghettifying star releases a bright flare of energy, researchers in the past have often had trouble examining such flares because of dust and dirt obscuring them. Now they know that the debris came from the spaghettification process itself.
"We found that when a black hole engulfs a star, it can cause a powerful outward explosion of material that obstructs our view," Samantha Oates, astronomer at the University of Birmingham and co-author of the study, said in the press release.
In other words, when the black hole engulfs the star, it releases energy that hurls chunks of star debris outward.
The team also estimated the size of the dying star: it was about the mass of our own sun, which is 2 × 1030 kg, or 330,000 Earths.
At the end of the study period, "it lost about half of it to the monster's black hole, which is over a million times as massive," said Matt Nicholl, a research fellow with the Royal Astronomical Society at the University of Birmingham and lead author of the study, said in the press release.
Going forward, astronomers hope that their detailed observations of this spaghetti star can help future researchers demystify similar events - and help us learn more about how black holes and matter interact.
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