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Astronomers see a black hole ‘spaghettify’ a star in real time

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Artist’s impression of star being tidally disrupted by a supermassive black hole.  


ESO/M. Kornmesser

It’s one of those astounding events that sounds like science fiction, but is just plain science. Astronomers say they were able to capture in unprecedented detail the process of a star being ripped into strips and devoured by a black hole. 

The powerful phenomenon caught the attention of scientists when a new blast of light near a known supermassive black hole was spotted by telescopes around the world. Months worth of follow-up observations made it clear they were seeing the destruction of a far-off sun as it happened.

“In this case the star was torn apart with about half of its mass feeding — or accreting — into a black hole of one million times the mass of the sun, and the other half was ejected outward,” explained astronomer Edo Berger from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in a statement.  

The violent scene is what astronomers call a tidal disruption event, which happens when a star comes too close to a black hole and gets shredded through a process of spaghettification — basically, the gravity of the black hole is so intense that it stretches whatever comes near vertically into long, thin shapes like pieces of spaghetti as it swallows it all up. 

The event, which goes by the catalog entry AT2019qiz and is the closest such flare ever seen at just 215 million light-years away, was caught early enough that scientists have been able to get a relatively unobscured view of the cosmic carnage before a cloud of star guts pulls a veil over the region.

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