Although we have seen many supermassive black holes feasting on matter before, astronomical hippos are usually caught in the middle of a meal. Now astronomers have captured the rare moment when a supermassive black hole is formed begins suction of matter; in this case a star the size of the Sun. And the black hole not only shatters the star, but also forces it to undergo “spaghettization” as it disintegrates.
The astronomers behind the discovery used telescopes from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and other observatories around the world. Led by Matt Nichols, a professor at the University of Birmingham in the UK, astronomers recently published their findings in the journal, Monthly notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
“The idea of a black hole sucking up a nearby star sounds like science fiction,” Nicole said in an ESO press release The independent. “But that’s exactly what happens at high tide.”
This “tidal event” is an astronomical phenomenon in which a star travels close enough to a black hole to be torn by it. The tidal force of the black hole – the tensile force it exerts with its enormous gravity – causes the star to “spaghettize”. Ie the black hole stretches the flowing matter of the star into long thin threads. (The video above shows this sequence.)
In this case, the team of astronomers observed the tidal event in a spiral galaxy in the constellation Eridanus. The team began watching the event, called AT2019qiz, shortly after the black hole tore the star apart.
4 / This event, the closest to Earth ever recorded, revealed that the black hole pushed the debris of the star outward while swallowing stellar material.
– ESO (@ESO) 12 October 2020
“Since we caught it early, we could actually see the curtain of dust and debris close when the black hole launched a powerful spill of material at speeds up to [6,200 miles per second]”Said Kate Alexander, a NASA Einstein Fellow at Northwestern University and a member of the team. In fact, this is the first observation of its kind; one establishing a direct link between the bright eruption that the star emits as it is swallowed by a black hole, and the subsequent material flowing from the first to the second.
Ultimately, the team says the discovery will help astronomers better understand how matter behaves in an “extreme gravity” environment. The event, called AT2019qiz, could even act as a “Rosetta Stone” to interpret future tidal events, ESO said. And knowing the language of supermassive black holes like this seems like a good idea.
Feature image: ESO