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Black hole caught turning a poor star into spaghetti

An image shows part of the Very Large Telescope, operated by the European Southern Observatory in Chile's Atacama Desert. The telescope was instrumental in watching the spaghettification event.
An image shows part of the Very Large Telescope, operated by the European Southern Observatory in Chile's Atacama Desert. The telescope was instrumental in watching the spaghettification event.
(Image: © ESO)

Editor's note: This article was updated at 4:50 p.m. EDT Oct. 13 to reflect that the black hole is 214 million light years from Earth, not 214 light years.

A black hole in a galaxy not far from Earth gobbled up a star like it was a big, exploding noodle, and astronomers got a front-row seat to the action.

The "unfortunate star," as the researchers called it in their paper, was orbiting in the dense nucleus of a galaxy with the unwieldy name 2MASX J04463790-1013349 about 214 million years ago when it found itself on a doomed path. It had wandered too close to the galaxy's central, supermassive black hole. And that black hole stretched it out like spaghetti and swallowed it one big gulp. (Scientists literally call this process "spaghettification.") Light from this act of stellar cannibalism reached Earth in 2019. Researchers have detected events like this before, but never so soon after the destruction and never so nearby. The black hole ate its noodly plasma dinner just 214 million light-years from Earth.

"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," Matt Nicholl, a University of Birmingham astrophysicist and lead author of the paper, said in a statement.

The paper was published today (Oct. 12) in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Related: 8 ways you can see Einstein's theory of relativity in real life

Spaghettification happens because of how sharply gravity increases as you approach a large black hole. If you dropped feet-first down a black hole's gravity well, at some point the gravity on your feet would be much stronger than the gravity on your head. It would stretch you out until all your skin, skeleton and guts looked like a long string (or a really gross noodle). The same thing happens to stars as they plunge into supermassive black holes, which can be millions of times their mass. 

Astronomers have still never actually watched the initial stretching process itself, but this is the closest they've ever gotten. Wide-view telescopes spotted a flash of light from the system, the signature of a "tidal disruption event." As a star is ripped apart, some of its innards end up in the disk of swirling matter around the black hole and shine brightly before they're swallowed. At the same time, clouds of dust and other material blast out into space, shrouding regions of the black hole from view. Soon after the first flash, telescopes all over the world whirled around to watch this happen.

"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 [6,200 miles per second] 10,000 kilometers per second]," co-author of the study Kate Alexander, a Northwestern University astrophysicist, said in the statement. "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."

Over the course of six months, the researchers watched the material flow into space and then watched the tidal disruption fade. The astronomers also confirmed for the first time the direct link between the flash of light and the outflowing material.

"The star had roughly the same mass as our own sun, and... it lost about half of that to the monster black hole, which is over a million times more massive," Nicholl said.

The researchers said the event, which they termed AT 2019qiz, could help them unlock secrets of more obscure tidal disruption events around other black holes, and understand how the extreme gravity of black holes warps matter in their surrounding space.

Originally published on Live Science.

  • ARNK
    No wonder people believe seance is a joke.
    Reply
  • Adam Houston
    The beginning and end of the second paragraph is off by a factor of 10^6 - If it happened 214 million years ago and we just observed it then it is 214 million light years away, not 214 light year away.
    Reply
  • JeetsN123
    ARNK said:
    No wonder people believe seance is a joke.
    Seance as in science is not a joke. and a black hole that destroyed another star doesn't prove that. Seances as in talking to dead people, absolutely.
    Reply
  • ThinkTank
    Is it possible to take an object(which would be damn near impossible to break) and secure it so all it can do is spin. Imprint a marker on the surface in 1 spot and Spin it faster and faster . Is it possible to keep spinning it faster and faster or is there a speed limit.. ? Would it be possible to spin that marker on the surface of the object into itself? Seems like it would cancel itself out if it were possible. It's almost like a black hole would do something like this.... almost like a black hole just flings stuff away from it at the event horizon because its spinning to fast.
    Reply
  • Manuel Rodriguez R
    I have a question, it is know that local super masive black hole at Sagitario is surrounder by stars, some of them have nearby fast passages. Is any research conducted to elucidate if someone of those stars is a candidate to sagettification?, if so this can be a magnific opportunity to observe the tidal effects on the infalling star.
    Reply
  • ThinkTank
    Manuel Rodriguez R said:
    I have a question, it is know that local super masive black hole at Sagitario is surrounder by stars, some of them have nearby fast passages. Is any research conducted to elucidate if someone of those stars is a candidate to sagettification?, if so this can be a magnific opportunity to observe the tidal effects on the infalling star.
    Manuel Rodriguez R said:
    I have a question, it is know that local super masive black hole at Sagitario is surrounder by stars, some of them have nearby fast passages. Is any research conducted to elucidate if someone of those stars is a candidate to sagettification?, if so this can be a magnific opportunity to observe the tidal effects on the infalling star.
    Is it possible for the black hole to latch onto the stars magnetic field when it gets to close. Interlocking it in a sense. Would explain how the star can fly past it a little ways then get sucked in. (OR) is it possible the black hold works in a mysterious way to latch onto a single particle of the star and pull it in and the spaghettification happens because there is a chain reaction with the particles. The strong nuclear force between the particles would cause the particles that are bonded to the 1 particle the black hole manages to latch onto.(it could be many particles the black hole latches onto and it seems like the other particles further away are getting dragged with the black hole influenced particles)
    Reply