Black hole devours Sun-sized star, astronomers capture exact moment

Rodiano Bonacci
Ottobre 14, 2020

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.

By the end of the study period, "it lost about half of that to the monster black hole, which is over a million times more massive", Matt Nicholl, a Royal Astronomical Society research fellow at the University of Birmingham and lead author of the study, said in the press release.

© Provided by Space An artist's illustration of a star's death by "spaghettification" as it is ripped to shreds by a supermassive black hole. The black hole's tremendous gravitational forces tear the star to shreds, with some of its material tossed into space and the rest plunging into the black hole, forming a disk of hot, bright gas as it is swallowed.

"When these forces exceed the star's cohesive force, the star loses pieces that rush into the black hole", Stephane Basa, a researcher from the Marseille Astrophysics Laboratory, told AFP.

"We found that, when a black hole devours a star, it can launch a powerful blast of material outwards that obstructs our view", said Dr. Samantha Oates, an astronomer at the University of Birmingham. Looking at the event in this comprehensive way showed how the material leaves the star and the flare the star sends as its dying gasp, researchers said.

Astronomers have spotted a rare phenomenon - a star being ripped apart by a supermassive black hole in a process called "spaghettification". But in the new event, named AT2019qiz, astronomers managed to see the show from its very early stages, before the veil went up.

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 event was initially captured by the Zwicky Transient Facility, with follow-up observations done with the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, the ESO New Technology Telescope, and Harvard & Smithsonian's MMT Observatory, among other facilities.

The observations revealed for the very first time a link between the material falling towards a black hole and the bright flare that is emitted. "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". According to researchers, they used ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) and ESO's New Technology Telescope (NTT) at a new flash of light that occurred a year ago close to a supermassive black hole, to study the phenomenon.

Earlier this year, a team confirmed that some of the debris from the disrupted star swirls into a disc of material that feeds into the black hole, like water down a drain.

According to study authors, the research will help them better understand supermassive black holes and how matter behaves in the extreme gravity environments around them.

The team say AT2019qiz could potentially act as a "Rosetta stone" for interpreting future observations of similar events.

Created to conduct detailed studies on subjects including planets around other stars, the first objects in the Universe, the nature and distribution of dark matter and dark energy, it will also enable researchers to solve further mysteries surrounding supermassive black holes by detecting increasingly fainter and faster evolving tidal disruption events.

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