Supermassive Black Hole Eating a Star Finally Observed

A NASA computer-simulated image of gas from a star getting swallowed by a black hole and gas ejecting at light-speed into space

A NASA computer-simulated image of gas from a star getting swallowed by a black hole and gas ejecting at light-speed into space

It's not easy being a star in space, especially in the case of a star that was devoured by a black hole in an incredible galactic event.

Supermassive black holes that are millions to billions times the mass of the sun are thought to lurk in the hearts of most, if not all, large galaxies.

An worldwide team of researchers tracked the cosmic clash using powerful radio and infrared telescopes honed on the centre of two colliding galaxies; known collectively as Arp 299 and close to 150 million light years from Earth.

The scientists triangulated their observations over the course of a decade using far-flung radio telescope antennas and other observational tools such as the Very Long Baseline Array of the National Science Foundation, the European VLBI Network, the Nordic Optical Telescope in the Canary Islands, the William Herschel Telescope and the Spitzer space telescope run by NASA. The sudden injection of material produces a bright flash, followed by transient radio emissions and the formation of a jet of material that initially moves at speeds very close to that of light. In a black hole, the mass is so concentrated that its gravitational pull is so strong that not even light can escape. Black holes that are deemed supermassive has a tendency to continuously draw matter toward itself and material that gets pulled toward it ends up forming a disc around the black hole itself.

The team now hopes that similar observations of tidal disruption events can lead to a greater understanding of the formation and evolution of jets following black hole encounters. They have also theorised that after the star is obliterated, its material forms a rotating disk around the black hole and launches jets outward at almost the speed of light.

Image: An srtiat's impression of a tidal disruption event (TDE).

"The event we have discovered could thus be just the tip of the iceberg of a hidden population of TDEs that were more common when the universe was much younger than today", Mattila says.

Dr Rob Beswick, from the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Manchester's School of Physics and Astronomy, UK, said: "This is a fantastic discovery and an extremely important result in astronomy".

For the first time ever, stronomers have captured the moment a supermassive black hole 20 million times the size of the Sun ripped apart a star which wandered too close.

In the beginning, the researchers believed that the bright object was because of a supernova. The pair, dubbed Arp 299, had caught the team's attention because it is known as a "supernova factory", explains Phys.org. Only in 2011, six years after discovery, the radio-emitting portion began to show an elongation.

The study detailing the observation was published June 14 in the journal Science.

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