Supermassive black hole violently swallows star, and researchers watch

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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A newly published study reveals what seems to have happened when a star met a black hole at the center of two colliding galaxies.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

The immense power of a supermassive black hole's gravity pulled in a star, ripped it to shreds and then ate it, researchers said.

Scientists Miguel Perez-Torres, of the Astrophysical Institute of Andalusia in Granada, Spain, and Seppo Mattila, of the University of Turku in Finland, staffed with a team of 36 scientists, were surprised when they caught the supermassive black hole in the act while observing the galaxy through radio and infrared telescopes.

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The black hole, positioned between colliding galaxies called Arp 299 more than 150 million light-years away, is 20 million times larger than the sun. The star the black hole ate was more than twice the sun's mass, according to the scientists.

This is the first time scientists have witnessed this type of astronomical event.

"Never before have we been able to directly observe the formation and evolution of a jet from one of events," Perez-Torres said in a statement, referring to the jets of material that spew out of the star at the speed of light when its ripped apart.

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Researchers believed that black holes eat stars fairly regularly, but previously had not witnessed the act. When stars are consumed, the material from the star creates a "rotating disk around the black hole, emitting intense X-rays and visible light."

One of the tools scientist used to see the jet material that blasted across galaxies was the National Science Foundation's Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), a radar that amplifies and records the on-goings in space using a 25 meter antenna.

Supermassive black holes, with a gravitation pull so strong that light can't escape, are present in most galaxies, the researchers said. But the recent discovery will help scientists comprehend what exactly happens in black holes and the type of environment present when galaxies first came into being.

"By looking for these events with infrared and radio telescopes, we may be able to discover many more (jet streams), and learn from them," Mattila said.

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