ESO telescopes capture the stunning moment a black hole devoured, ripped apart a star

While the idea of a black hole sucking in a nearby star sounds like science fiction, but it is exactly what happens in a tidal disruption event.


Astronomers have used telescopes from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and other organisations from around the world to spot a rare blast of light from a star that was ripped apart from a supermassive black hole.

According to a statement by ESO, the phenomenon, which is called a tidal disruption event happened at just 215 million light-years from Earth and is the closest such phenomenon ever recorded.

This illustration depicts a star (in the foreground) experiencing spaghettification as it’s sucked in by a supermassive black hole (in the background) during a ‘tidal disruption event’. In a new study, done with the help of ESO’s Very Large Telescope and ESO’s New Technology Telescope, a team of astronomers found that when a black hole devours a star, it can launch a powerful blast of material outwards. Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

This illustration depicts a star (in the foreground) experiencing spaghettification as it’s sucked in by a supermassive black hole (in the background) during a ‘tidal disruption event’. In a new study, done with the help of ESO’s Very Large Telescope and ESO’s New Technology Telescope, a team of astronomers found that when a black hole devours a star, it can launch a powerful blast of material outwards. Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Lead author of the study Matt Nicholl stated that while the idea of a black hole sucking in a nearby star sounds like science fiction, but it is exactly what happens in a tidal disruption event. 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 last year close to a supermassive black hole, to study the phenomenon.

Study co-author Thomas Wevers went on to add that theoretically when an unlucky star wanders too close to a supermassive black hole in the centre of a galaxy, the extreme gravitational pull of the black hole pulls the star in and shreds it into thin strips. As some of the thin strands of stellar material fall into the black hole, a bright flare of energy is released.

This is the first time astronomers have been able to shed light on the origin of the curtain that obstructs the burst of light.

Samantha Oates, another study author went on to state that when a black hole eats up a star, it can launch a powerful blast of material in the outward direction which obstructs the view. According to Oates, this happens because the energy released as the black hole east up the star drives the debris outward.

The discovery with AT2019qiz was possible because the team was able to catch the event early after the star was ripped.

"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," Kate Alexander, NASA Einstein Fellow at Northwestern University in the US added.

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.


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