Astronomers have observed how a black hole “sucks” a nearby star. The research team hopes that the discovery will help them better understand the behavior of matter in the gravitational environment of supermassive black holes.
Astronomers have succeeded in capturing the last moments of a star torn apart by a supermassive black hole. Using telescopes of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), scientists were able to observe the star’s rare flash of light that is produced during the process, according to research published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on Monday.
If a star comes too close to a supermassive black hole, it is sucked in by the extreme gravitational pull and can be pulled into long strings – a process known as “spaghettification”. If strands of the star are sucked into the black hole, a flash of light is produced. Until now, astronomers have had difficulty examining these flashes of light because they are often obscured by a curtain of dust and debris.
“A monster over a million times more massive”
The researchers around main author Matt Nicholl, lecturer and research fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society at the British University of Birmingham, were now able to investigate the phenomenon of the so-called Tidal Disruption Event in unprecedented detail. At a distance of just over 215 million light-years from the Earth, it was also the closest event of its kind to date.
“The idea that a black hole sucks in a nearby star sounds like science fiction,” said Matt Nicholl. “But this is exactly what happens in a tidal disruption event.” Because astronomers discovered the flash of light only a short time after the star ruptured, they were able to observe the curtain of dust and debris building up. The luminosity first increased over the course of about six months and then gradually faded.
The observations suggested that the star had approximately the mass of our Sun, Nicholl said. The black hole, on the other hand, was “a monster that is over a million times more massive”. The team hopes that his discovery will help to better understand the behavior of matter in the gravitational environment of supermassive black holes.