A black hole was spotted shredding apart a wayward star and devouring its gasses. All that remains of the feeding frenzy is a bright, hot, donut-shaped ring of gas the size of our Solar System swirling around the black hole.
The gorging was spotted on March 1, 2022, in a galaxy 300 million light years away. Changes in the doomed star’s condition occurred during a period of days and months — data which offers astronomers details about what happens when a passing star is caught and devoured by a black hole.
“Typically, these events are hard to observe. You get maybe a few observations at the beginning of the disruption when it’s really bright. Our program is different in that it is designed to look at a few tidal events over a year to see what happens,” said Peter Maksym of the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in a statement.
“We saw this early enough that we could observe it at these very intense black hole accretion stages. We saw the accretion rate drop as it turned to a trickle over time.”
About 100 tidal disruption events, as astronomers call these feasts, have been found around black holes by astronomers. For any given galaxy with a dormant supermassive black hole at the centre, it is estimated that this stellar feast occurs only a few times every 100,000 years.
Astronomers are using the Hubble Space Telescope’s ultraviolet capabilities to study the star. Emily Engelthaler of the CfA said in a statement that few tidal events are seen through “ultraviolet.” Watching this phenomenon through the ultraviolet spectra gives astronomers details about the black hole and the star’s debris.
“We really are still getting our heads around the event. You shred the star and then it’s got this material that’s making its way into the black hole. And so you’ve got models where you think you know what is going on, and then you’ve got what you actually see,” said Maksym. “This is an exciting place for scientists to be: right at the interface of the known and the unknown.”