Supermassive Black Hole Eating a Star Finally Observed

Katie Ramirez
June 17, 2018

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.

Supermassive black holes aren't your ordinary stellar-variety black holes whose mass is just a couple of times that of our sun.

An worldwide group of astronomers has directly imaged the eruption resulting from a violent encounter between a supermassive black hole 20 million times more massive than our sun and a much smaller star, some 150 million light-years away. If a star passes too close to such a monstrous black hole, its powerful gravitational pull will tear it apart in a so-called tidal disruption event.

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. Theorists have suggested that material pulled from the doomed star forms a rotating disk around the black hole, emitting intense X-rays and visible light, and also launches jets of material outward from the poles of the disk at almost the speed of light.

And it took a long time for the team to get the full data on the TDE as it was all happening.

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

The team suspects that black holes "eating" passing stars may be a common occurrence even if we can't see it too often. A few months later, they observed another source giving off radio emissions in the same region of Arp 299.

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The scientists tracked the event with multiple radio and infrared telescopes from across the world, including the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory, working as part of the European Very Long Baseline Network (EVN).

One of the effects: a powerful jetstream extending into one direction that was caught by radio and infrared telescopes.

In addition, the energy emitted during those 10 years by the radio and infrared waves coming off of Arp 299-B AT1 was found to be 125 billion times the amount of energy the sun releases per year. Events such this one are more abundant in the distant universe due to galaxies evolving in earlier stages.

The discovery, published today in the Science journal, was not what the astronomers originally expected to find. Subsequent monitoring showed the expansion growing, confirming that what the scientists are seeing is a jet, not a supernova.

In fact, we have a unique chance to understand what happens near the black hole during these "gaps", said Miguel Perez-Torres (Miguel Perez-Torres), an astrophysicist at the Astrophysical Institute of Andalusia in Granada (Spain). Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of worldwide cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency).

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