Distant black hole is caught in the act of annihilating a star

This artist’s impression illustrates how it might look when a star approaches too close to a black hole, where the star is squeezed by the intense gravitational pull of the black hole. Some of the star’s material gets pulled in and swirls around the black hole forming the disc that can be seen in this image. In rare cases, such as this one, jets of matter and radiation are shot out from the poles of the black hole.
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This artist’s impression illustrates what it might look like when a star gets too close to a black hole, where the star is compressed by the black hole’s intense gravitational pull. Some of the material from the star is pulled in and swirls around the black hole, forming the disk that can be seen in this image. In rare cases, like this one, jets of matter and radiation shoot out from the poles of the black hole. (ESO, M.Kornmesser via Reuters)

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WASHINGTON — Astronomers have detected an act of extreme violence to more than half the known universe when a black hole ripped apart a star that got too close to this celestial savage. But this was no ordinary example of a ravenous black hole.

It was one of only four examples, and the first since 2011, of a black hole observed in the act of tearing apart a passing star in what is called a tidal disruption event and then launching luminous jets of high-energy particles. in opposite directions in space, the researchers said. And it was the farthest and most brilliant event of its kind on record.

The astronomers described the event in studies published Wednesday in the journals Nature and Nature Astronomy.

The culprit appears to be a supermassive black hole believed to be hundreds of millions of times the mass of our sun, located approximately 8.5 billion light-years from Earth. A light year is the distance light travels in one year, 5.9 trillion miles.

“We think the star was similar to our sun, perhaps more massive but of a common type,” said astronomer Igor Andreoni of the University of Maryland and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, lead author of one of the studies.

The event was detected in February through the Zwicky Transient Facility astronomical survey using a camera attached to a telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California. The distance was calculated using the Very Large Telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile.

“When a star gets dangerously close to a black hole, don’t worry, this won’t happen to the sun, it’s violently torn apart by the black hole’s gravitational tidal forces, similar to how the moon pulls the tides on Earth but with greater strength,” he said. Michael Coughlin, an astronomer at the University of Minnesota and a co-author of the study.

“The pieces of the star are then captured in a rapidly spinning disk that orbits the black hole. Eventually, the black hole consumes what is left of the doomed star in the disk. In some very rare cases, which we estimate to be 100 times rarer, powerful jets of material are thrown in opposite directions when the tidal disruption event occurs,” Coughlin added.

Andreoni and Coughlin said the black hole was probably spinning rapidly, which could help explain how the two powerful jets were shot into space at nearly the speed of light.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology astronomer Dheeraj Pasham, lead author of the other study, said the researchers were able to observe the event very early, a week after the black hole began consuming the doomed star.

While researchers detect tidal disruption events about twice a month, those that produce spurts are extremely rare. One of the jets emanating from this black hole appears to be pointed towards Earth, making it appear brighter than if it were headed in another direction, an effect called a “Doppler shift” that is similar to the enhanced sound of a police siren going off. happens.

The supermassive black hole is believed to reside at the center of a galaxy, much like the Milky Way, and most galaxies have one of these at their core. But the tidal disruption event was so bright that it obscured the galaxy’s starlight.

“At its peak, the source appeared brighter than 1,000 trillion suns,” Pasham said.

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