In Depth

Scientists see black hole eating star for first time

Astronomers surprised by event that could lead to greater understanding of astrophysics

Using advanced telescopes focused on a pair of colliding galaxies nearly 150 million light-years from Earth, astronomers have for the first time watched as a star was “eaten” by a black hole.

It was seen “gobbling a star twice the size of the Sun”, says Sky News, and then ejecting a “rapid jet of particles”. The star had drifted into the gravitational field of the black hole, which is itself 20 million times bigger than the Sun.

Only a small number of  stellar deaths, called tidal disruption events (TDEs) have been detected and none has been witnessed, “although scientists have hypothesised that they may be a more common occurrence”, says Phys.org.

Theoretical astrophysicists “believe that material pulled from the doomed stars forms a rotating disk around the black hole, emitting intense radiation and shoots powerful jets of material from the poles of the disk, close to the speed of light”, says Sky News.

Seppo Mattila of the University of Turku in Finland and Miguel Perez-Torres of the Astrophysical Institute of Andalusia in Spain led a team of 36 scientists from 26 institutions around the world in the observations of the galaxies, between them known as Arp 299.

The scientists said the discovery of the TDE was particularly surprising.

"Never before have we been able to directly observe the formation and evolution of a jet from one of these events," said Perez-Torres.

Most galaxies have supermassive black holes, “which can pull matter into them and form a huge disc around their outsides as they do”, says The Independent.

“Much of the time, however, supermassive black holes are not actively devouring anything, so they are in a quiet state,” Perez-Torres said. “Tidal disruption events can provide us with a unique opportunity to advance our understanding of the formation and evolution of jets in the vicinities of these powerful objects.”

Mattila now hopes that other insights will follow. “By looking for these events with infrared and radio telescopes, we may be able to discover many more, and learn from them,” he said.

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