A moment has been captured as a burst of light from a close star falls into a very huge black hole — after it was shredded in a process called ‘spaghettification’.
The abundance of black holes can distort stars just like the moon distorts the Earth’s oceans to produce tides — to an extent that matter is pinched out into a thread.
This extended strand of material is thus sucked towards the black hole’s event horizon — radiating brightly as it circles the hole and is devoured.
British-led researchers captured the flare — the nearest to Earth ever watched at just 215 million light-years away — timely enough to see the whole destructive process.
Over a six-month span, the flare — named ‘AT2019qiz’ — became brighter as additional material was torn into the hole by severe gravitational forces, before disappearing.
Capturing this ‘tidal disruption event’ will enable experts to adequately comprehend huge black holes and their impact on surrounding matter.
‘The idea of a black hole “sucking in” a nearby star sounds like science fiction. But this is exactly what happens in a tidal disruption event,’ said paper author and astronomer Matt Nicholl of the University of Birmingham.
‘We were able to investigate in detail what happens when a star is eaten by such a monster,’ he explained.
The researchers utilized studies taken by the Very Large and New Technology Telescopes in Chile, as well as the the Las Cumbres Observatory global telescope network and NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Satellite in Earth orbit.
Tidal disturbance events unusual and also generally difficult to investigate, the researchers explained, as the very process of shredding a star forms a cloud of dust and debris that shrouds the black hole from view.
‘When a black hole devours a star, it can launch a powerful blast of material outwards that obstructs our view,’ said paper author and Samantha Oates, also of Birmingham.
‘This happens because the energy released as the black hole eats up stellar material propels the star’s debris outwards.’
‘The observations showed that the star had roughly the same mass as our own Sun, and that it lost about half of that to the black hole, which is over a million times more massive,’ added Dr Nicholl.
‘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,’ explained paper author and astrophysicist Kate Alexander of Illinois’ Northwestern University.
‘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.’
The researchers were able to verify for the first time the forthright link between the material streaming out of the star and the bright flare radiated as such was devoured into the black hole.
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.