Filmed the death of a star by ‘spaghettification’: shreds of its light were captured by telescopes as it was devoured by a black hole. The result could become a Rosetta stone to understand these phenomena and help to better understand supermassive black holes and how the matter around them behaves. Published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the result is due to the international research team led by astronomer Matt Nicholl of the British University of Birmingham.
“The idea of a black hole ‘sucking in a nearby star sounds like science fiction. But that’s exactly what happens,” Nicholl notes. The discovery was made possible thanks to observations from the ground and from space with the Very Large Telescope and the New Technology Telescope of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the telescopes of the global network Las Cumbres Observatory and NASA’s Swift satellite. The instrument armada has captured a rare explosion, emitted by a star as it is sucked into a supermassive black hole. The observations showed that, explains Nicholl, “the star had about the same mass as the Sun and that it lost half of it to the black hole, which is over a million times more massive.”
The event, dubbed AT2019qiz, is the closest explosion of its kind on record. It occurs just 215 million light years away, in a spiral galaxy in the constellation Eridanus. Phenomena of this type occur when a star passes too close to a black hole and the extreme gravitational pull of the cosmic monster destroys the star, reducing it to thin streams of matter, a process called “spaghettification”. During the process, some of the material falls away into the black hole, releasing a bright flare of energy, like the one detected here. These events are rare and not always easy to study because they are usually obscured by a curtain of dust and debris. The researchers were able to study it in detail without earlier because it was detected shortly after the star was torn apart.