In a First, Scientists Witness Black Hole Consuming a Star

December 1, 2015 | Joanne Kennell

Artist's impression of a binary system containing a stellar-mass black hole pulling gas away from a companion star (right).
Photo credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

And it spits a little out.

If you have ever wondered what it would look like when a black hole and a star meet — you will soon find out.  But as you can probably guess, it is always bad news for the star.

An international team of astrophysicists, led by a scientist from John Hopkins University, have witnessed a star being ripped apart by a black hole for the first time.  Not only that, they were able to capture the black hole ejecting a flare of matter moving at the speed of light.

The researchers began tracking the star once they were aware of its impending doom back in December of 2014.  Once the star, approximately the size of our sun, was trapped by the strong gravitational pull of the black hole, it was just a matter of time before the star was sucked in.

Black holes are pretty scary, if you ask me.  They’re so dense that nothing can escape their gravitational pull — not even light.  A common misconception is that black holes are actually holes that lead somewhere — to another universe or world.  In fact, there are no holes involved what-so-ever.

SEE ALSO: Twin Supermassive Black Holes on Verge of Collision

Picture a star collapsed into a gravitational singularity — an object with so much mass, but compressed so tightly that its gravitational pull is too strong for even light to escape. This explains why they appear black.  So unfortunately if you wanted to leave this universe for any reason, a black hole is not your way out.  You would just add to the mass of the black hole, and it would be really, really uncomfortable.

Astrophysicists had predicted that if black hole consumed a large amount of gas, such as a star, a jet of fast moving plasma (particles in a magnetic field) would escape near the black hole’s event horizon —  where the escape velocity (or speed required to escape the gravitational pull of the black hole) is equal to the speed of light.  This study suggests that the scientists' predictions were correct.

"These events are extremely rare," said Sjoert van Velzen, a Hubble fellow at Johns Hopkins. "It's the first time we see everything from the stellar destruction followed by the launch of a conical outflow, also called a jet, and we watched it unfold over several months."

It also helped that the galaxy where the destruction of the star was occurring was closer to Earth than those studied previously.  One light year is 5.88 trillion miles, and this galaxy is about 300 million light years away.  Others were at least three times farther.

Once the star was completely gobbled up, researchers gathered the data and developed a “multi-wavelength” portrait of the event.

"The destruction of a star by a black hole is beautifully complicated, and far from understood," said van Velzen. "From our observations, we learn the streams of stellar debris can organize and make a jet rather quickly, which is valuable input for constructing a complete theory of these events."

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