Oct 13, 2020 - Science

Watching a star's death by black hole

An illustration of a star being destroyed by a black hole. Image: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Scientists have spotted a bright flash of light emitted by a star as it was destroyed by a black hole 215 million light-years away.

Why it matters: Black holes are some of the most extreme and difficult to study objects in the universe, and these types of rare events could help researchers piece together more about their nature.

What they found: A new study detailing the death of the star in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society explains that the star went through an event called "spaghettification" where it was ripped apart when it came too close to a supermassive black hole.

  • "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," astronomer Edo Berger, an author of the study, said in a statement.
  • This event — named AT2019qiz — is the closest of its kind ever found to Earth, giving scientists a wealth of data on it.
  • While astronomers have seen these types of events in the past, this is the first time they saw mass ejected outward, away from the black hole, giving them more insight into how black holes grow.

The big picture: Usually astronomers have trouble seeing these events because they are typically clouded by gas and dust, but AT2019qiz was seen quickly after the star was gobbled up, before the material shot away from the black hole could obscure their view.

  • "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," Kate Alexander, another author of the study, said in the statement.
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