It’s one of those astounding events that sounds like science fiction, but is just plain science. Astronomers say they were able to capture in unprecedented detail the process of a star being ripped into strips and devoured by a black hole.
The powerful phenomenon caught the attention of scientists when a new blast of light near a known supermassive black hole was spotted by telescopes around the world. Months worth of follow-up observations made it clear they were seeing the destruction of a far-off sun as it happened.
“In this case the star was torn apart with about half of its mass feeding — or accreting — into a black hole of one million times the mass of the sun, and the other half was ejected outward,” explained astronomer Edo Berger from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in a statement.
The violent scene is what astronomers call a tidal disruption event, which happens when a star comes too close to a black hole and gets shredded through a process of spaghettification — basically, the gravity of the black hole is so intense that it stretches whatever comes near vertically into long, thin shapes like pieces of spaghetti as it swallows it all up.
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The event, which goes by the catalog entry AT2019qiz and is the closest such flare ever seen at just 215 million light-years away, was caught early enough that scientists have been able to get a relatively unobscured view of the cosmic carnage before a cloud of star guts pulls a veil over the region.
“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 10,000 km/s (22 million miles per hour),” explained Kate Alexander, a NASA Einstein Fellow at Northwestern University. “This is a unique ‘peek behind the curtain’ that provided the first opportunity to pinpoint the origin of the obscuring material and follow in real time how it engulfs the black hole.”
A paper on the discovery was published Monday in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
The event is so close and clear that Berger says it will help scientists learn more about the powerful forces at work, particularly the simultaneous pull of the shredded star into the black hole and the outward explosion of material from the star.
“Until now, the nature of these emissions has been heavily debated, but here we see that the two regimes are connected through a single process.”
The hope is that AT2019qiz could be a sort of Rosetta stone for studying and interpreting what black holes have for lunch in the future. One distant day, intergalactic space travelers may even give thanks that this discovery regularly allows them to warp around the universe without turning into space spaghetti.