Garching Astronomers have detected a rare flash of light in which a star was engulfed in a supermassive black hole. The phenomenon known as “spaghettification” was registered around 215 million light years away, closer than ever before, as the researchers write in the journal “Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society”. They were able to observe the process with telescopes from the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which has its headquarters in Garching near Munich.
“The idea that a black hole sucks in a nearby star sounds like science fiction,” said Matt Nicholl, lead author of the study from the University of Birmingham, UK. But that is exactly what happens in a so-called “tidal disruption event”: If a star comes too close to a supermassive black hole, it is sucked in by the extreme gravitational pull. This can result in long threads of matter that give “spaghettification” its curious name. If these star strands are sucked into the black hole, a flash of light is created.
Investigating the phenomenon has thus been difficult for astronomers because dust and debris often obscured the flashes of light. But because the researchers were able to detect the flash of light shortly after the star was torn apart, the luminosity was initially still strong. It then faded over the course of about six months.
The investigations suggested that the star had about the mass of our sun, while the black hole was over a million times more massive, said Nicholl. The research group hopes that their discovery will help scientists in the future to study black holes and the behavior of matter in their environment.
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