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Astronomers Watch as a Destroyed Star Falls Into a Black Hole

Astronomers have observed material being blown away from a black hole using a trio of X-Ray telescopes after it tore a star apart. (Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)
Astronomers have observed material being blown away from a black hole using a trio of X-Ray telescopes after it tore a star apart. (Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)

With the use of NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer, and ESA’s XMM-Newton, scientists were given a bird’s eye view when a star ventures too close to a black hole. The star gets ripped apart in the extreme environment and it looks truly amazing.

Because of the intense gravity of a black hole, when a star gets too close, the tidal forces will rip the star apart. These events are called “tidal disruptions,” and with this tidal disruption, called ASASSN-14li, astronomers observed some of the stellar debris sent outward at high speeds, while the rest continued toward the black hole.

Watch as this artist’s rendering illustrates new findings about a star shredded by a black hole from NASA Goddard:

The event happened in the center of  galaxy PGC 043234, which is about 290 million light years away, making it the closest tidal disruption discovered in 10 years. The supermassive black hole is estimated to weigh a few million times the mass of the sun. The event was discovered during an optical search by the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN) in November 2014.

Artist illustration of the tidal disruption ASASSN-14li. Credits: NASA/CXC/U. Michigan/J. Miller et al. (Illustration: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss)

Artist’s illustration of the tidal disruption ASASSN-14li.
Credits: NASA/CXC/U. Michigan/J. Miller et al. (Illustration: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss)

Jon Miller, of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who led the study said in a statement: “We have seen evidence for a handful of tidal disruptions over the years and have developed a lot of ideas of what goes on,” adding:

 This one is the best chance we have had so far to really understand what happens when a black hole shreds a star

According to NASA, after the star is destroyed, the black hole’s strong gravitational force pulls most of the remains of the star toward it. This infalling debris is heated to millions of degrees and generates a huge amount of X-ray light. Soon after this surge of X-rays, the amount of light decreases as the material falls beyond the black hole’s event horizon, the point beyond which no light can escape.

Scientists know that gas will often move toward a black hole by spiraling inward in a disk, but what remains unknown is how the whole process starts. By using X-ray light at different wavelengths (known as the “X-ray spectrum“), astronomers were able to watch the formation of the ASASSN-14li disk by tracking how that changed over time.

NASA’s Swift satellite spots black hole devouring a star, by Universe Odyssey:

“All previous observations of tidal disruption events revealed an already formed disc around the black hole. But this is the first time that we catch such a disc in its infancy, so we can study the details of how matter starts flowing from the shattered star towards the black hole and settles in circular orbits around it,” said Miller.

The researchers determined that the X-rays being produced come from material that is either very close to or is actually in the smallest possible stable orbit around the black hole, NASA wrote.

Jelle Kaastra of the Institute for Space Research in the Netherlands and co-author said: “The black hole tears the star apart and starts swallowing material really quickly, but that’s not the end of the story.

The black hole can’t keep up that pace so it expels some of the material outwards.

The data from the X-rays suggests that there was wind that was moving away from the black hole. Because the wind was not moving fast enough to be able to escape the black hole’s gravitational pull, NASA has an alternative explanation, writing:

“The relatively low speed is that gas from the disrupted star is following an elliptical orbit around the black hole and is at the greatest distance from the black hole where it is traveling the slowest.”

NASA accidentally discovers giant black holes, by DNews:

Cole Miller, from the University of Maryland in College Park and a co-author, said: “These results support some of our newest ideas for the structure and evolution of tidal disruption events. In the future, tidal disruptions can provide us with laboratories to study the effects of extreme gravity.”

By finding more events like ASASSN-14li, astronomers are hoping they can test theoretical models on how black holes affect their environments, and how they affect anything that wanders too close.

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