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Astronomers Spot a Supermassive Black Hole Shredding a Star

While we’ve seen numerous supermassive black holes feasting on matter before, the astronomical behemoths have usually been caught mid meal. Now, astronomers have captured the rare moment when a supermassive black hole begins sucking in matter; in this case, a star the size of the Sun. And the black hole not only shreds the star, but also forces it to undergo “spaghettification” as it disintegrates.

The astronomers behind the discovery used telescopes from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and other observatories around the globe. Led by Matt Nicholl, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham in the U.K., the astronomers recently published their findings in the journal, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“The idea of a black hole ‘sucking in’ a nearby star sounds like science fiction,” Nicholl said in an ESO press release, which comes via The Independent. “But this is exactly what happens in a tidal disruption event.”

Astronomers have observed a tidal disruption event in which a supermassive black hole consumes a star.

ESO

This “tidal disruption event” is an astronomical phenomenon in which a star travels close enough to a black hole to be pulled apart by it. The black hole’s tidal force—the stretching force it applies with its immense gravity—results in the “spaghettification” of the star. I.e. the black hole stretches the star’s inflowing matter into long, thin strands. (The video at top shows this sequence.)

In this instance, the team of astronomers observed the tidal event in a spiral galaxy in the constellation Eridanus. The team began watching the event, dubbed AT2019qiz, a short time after the black hole ripped apart the star.

“Because we caught it early, we could actually see the curtain of dust and debris being drawn up as the black hole launched a powerful outflow of material with velocities up to [6,200 miles per second],” Kate Alexander, a NASA Einstein Fellow at Northwestern University and member of the team, said. In fact, this is a first-ever observation; one establishing a direct connection between the bright flare a star emits as a black hole consumes it, and the subsequent material outflowing from the former into the latter.

Ultimately, the team says this discovery will help astronomers better understand how matter behaves in “extreme gravity” environments. The event, dubbed AT2019qiz, could even act as a “Rosetta stone” for interpreting tidal disruption events in the future, the ESO says. And knowing the language of supermassive black holes like this one seems like a good idea.

Feature image: ESO