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Astronomers capture a black hole shredding star into spaghetti strands

  • Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory observed a black hole sucking in a faraway star, shredding it into thin strands of stellar material.
  • This process, known as “spaghettification,” happens because of black holes’ powerful gravitational force.
  • At 215 million light-years away, this spaghettification process is the closest ever observed by astronomers. 
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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 away from Earth, the star’s destruction is the closest such event astronomers have ever observed. 

“When an unlucky star wanders too close to a supermassive black hole in the center of a galaxy, the extreme gravitational pull of the black hole shreds the star into thin streams of material,” study author Thomas Wevers, a fellow at the European Southern Observatory in Santiago, Chile, said in a press release about the discovery.

This process is called a tidal disruption event – or, more colloquially, “spaghettification,” a nod to the long, thin strands a star becomes as the black hole’s gravity stretches it thinner and thinner. 

When these strands get sucked into the black hole, they release a powerful flare of energy that astronomers can detect, even from hundreds of millions of light-years away. 

spaghettification

A screenshot taken from a video zooming in on the AT2019qiz tidal disruption event, 215 million light-years away. This phenomenon, a blast of light from a star being ripped apart by a supermassive black hole, has been studied by ESO telescopes.

N. Risinger/ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2


The researchers studied the dying star over a six-month period, using tools including ESO’s Very Large Telescope and its New Technology Telescope, and published their findings in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Examining spaghettification in ‘unprecedented detail’

The research team discovered the star soon after it started getting ripped apart, and observed it through ultraviolet, optical, X-ray and radio wavelengths. The combination of the star’s proximity and timing allowed the astronomers to study it in “unprecedented detail,” according to the press release.

Even though a spaghettifying star releases a bright energy flare, researchers have often had trouble in the past examining such flares because dust and debris obscure them. Now they know the debris comes from the spaghettification process itself.

“We found that, when a black hole devours a star, it can launch a powerful blast of material outwards that obstructs our view,” Samantha Oates, an astronomer at the University of Birmingham and a coauthor of the study, said in the press release.

In other words, as the black hole gobbles up the star, it releases energy that flings chunks of star-debris outwards. 

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 about 330,000 Earths. 

By the end of the study period, “it lost about half of that to the monster black hole, which is over

Astronomers witness star being “turned into spaghetti” by black hole

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Researchers found that when a star is "spaghettified" a blast of material is launched outwards (ESO)
Researchers found that when a star is “spaghettified” a blast of material is launched outwards (ESO)

Astronomers have witnessed the final moments of a star being devoured by a supermassive black hole – and it’s not pretty.

A blast of light from 215 million light years away from Earth allowed astronomers to study the “tidal disruption event” in unprecedented detail. 

Stars which wander too close to vast supermassive black holes are shredded (“spaghettified”) into thin streams of material, which are in turn devoured, releasing flashes of light. 

Matt Nicholl, a lecturer and Royal Astronomical Society research fellow at the University of Birmingham, UK said, “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.”

Read more: Astronomers find closest black hole to Earth

Thomas Wevers, an ESO Fellow in Santiago, Chile says, “When an unlucky star wanders too close to a supermassive black hole in the centre of a galaxy, the extreme gravitational pull of the black hole shreds the star into thin streams of material.”

Although powerful and bright, up to now astronomers have had trouble investigating this burst of light, which is often obscured by a curtain of dust and debris. 

The researchers say that when a black hole devours a star, it launches a powerful blast of material outwards, that can obstruct our view. 

The researchers were able to get a clear, unobstructed view, as they caught the event extremely early. 

 “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 10,000 km/s,” says Kate Alexander, NASA Einstein Fellow at Northwestern University in the US. 

“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.”

Read more: What are fast radio bursts, and why do they look like aliens?

The team carried out observations of AT 2019qiz, located in a spiral galaxy in the constellation of Eridanus, over a 6-month period as the flare grew in luminosity and then faded away.

 “Several sky surveys discovered emission from the new tidal disruption event very quickly after the star was ripped apart,” says Wevers. 

“We immediately pointed a suite of ground-based and space telescopes in that direction to see how the light was produced.”

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