Telescopes Record Last Moments of Star Devoured by a Black Hole

James Marshall
October 13, 2020

Wevers is an ESO Fellow in Santiago, Chile and was at the Institute of Astronomy at the United Kingdom's University of Cambridge when he did the work.

At 215 million light-years away, this spaghettification process is the closest ever observed by astronomers.

"But that's exactly what happens in a tidal disruption event".

This handout picture released by The European Southern Observatory on October 12, 2020, shows an illustration depicting a star (in the foreground) experiencing spaghettification as it is sucked in by a supermassive black hole (in the background) during a "tidal disruption event".

Such phenomena happen when a star ventures too close to a supermassive black hole, objects that reside at the centre of most large galaxies including our Milky Way.

Astronomers were alerted by the intense flash of light, visible hundreds of millions of light years away, just before parts of the star disappeared into the black hole's event horizon after being 'spaghettified' by the huge gravity.

Researchers studied the event, known as AT 2019qiz, over six months as the flare became bright and then faded away.

"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 10 000 km/s", says Kate Alexander, NASA Einstein Fellow at Northwestern University in the U.S. and a co-author on this latest research.

"We immediately pointed a suite of ground-based and space telescopes in that direction to see how the light was produced".

The flare is the result of intense gravitational and frictional influences in this accreting material.

The European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope and New Technology Telescope, the Las Cumbres Observatory global telescope network, and the Neil Gehrels Swift Satellite all participated in the observing the event, providing data over multiple wavelengths of light, including ultraviolet, radio, optical and X-ray.

This light allowed the team to calculate the masses involved in the AT2019qiz.

Between the rapidity with which the team turned their attention to the event, its close proximity, and the broader-than-usual spectrum across which they observed it, they also determined that the obscuring dust was part and parcel of the TDE, and not a separate phenomenon.

Nicholl et al. "An outflow powers the optical rise of the nearby, fast-evolving tidal disruption event AT2019qiz". This moment was captured by astronomers and have shared it with people to see.

"Until now, the nature of these emissions has been heavily debated, but here we see that the two regimes are connected through a single process". The star gets physically torn apart and the matter disintegrates looking like strings.

The research is just the most recent breakthrough in studying TDEs.

Supermassive black holes teach us, wrote Princeton's great quantum physicist, John Archibald Wheeler in his autobiography, Geons, Black Holes & Quantum Foam, "that space can be crumpled like a piece of paper into an infinitesimal dot, that time can be extinguished like a blown-out flame, and that the laws of physics that we regard as 'sacred, ' as immutable, are anything but".

The research helps us better understand supermassive black holes and how matter behaves in the extreme gravity environments around them. The researchers themselves described AT2019qiz as a "Rosetta stone for interpreting future TDE observations" ahead of much anticipated observations from elsewhere in the scientific and astronomical community.

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