Scientists get first glimpse of black hole eating star, ejecting high-speed flare

The first-ever observation of a star being engulfed by a black hole and releasing a burst of matter traveling almost as fast as light has been made by a multinational team of astrophysicists under the direction of a scientist from Johns Hopkins University.

According to Sjoert van Velzen, a Hubble fellow at Johns Hopkins, the discovery, which was published on Thursday in the journal Science, follows the star—roughly the size of our sun—as it deviates from its usual course, enters a supermassive black hole's gravitational attraction, and gets pulled in.

Van Velzen stated, "These occurrences are incredibly uncommon." "We watched it unfold over several months, and it's the first time we see everything from the stellar destruction followed by the launch of a conical outflow, also called a jet."

Black holes are regions of space that are so dense that matter, gas, and even light cannot escape due to an insurmountable gravitational pull. As a result, the area seems to be empty and lacks visibility. It has long been known by astronomers that if a black hole is forced to consume a significant amount of gas—in this example, an entire star—it will release a fast-moving jet of plasma, which are simple particles trapped in a magnetic field, from its vicinity around the black hole's "event horizon." The experts noted that this analysis implies that their prognosis was accurate.

Lead analyst Van Velzen oversaw the work of 13 other scientists from the US, the Netherlands, Australia, and Great Britain. "Previous efforts to find evidence for these jets, including my own, were late to the game," van Velzen said.

Most huge galaxies are thought to contain supermassive black holes, which are the largest type of black holes. With barely a million times the mass of the sun, this specific supermassive black hole is on the lighter end of the spectrum yet still has the power to devour a star.

Using an optical telescope in Hawaii, a team from Ohio State University made the first observation of the star being destroyed. Early in December 2014, that team took to Twitter to proclaim their discovery.

Van Velzen got in touch with Rob Fender's astrophysics team at the University of Oxford in Great Britain after reading about the incident. To follow up as quickly as possible, that group employed radio telescopes. They happened upon the event barely in time.

By the time it was finished, the multinational team had assembled data from radio, optical, and X-ray signals using ground-based observatories and satellites, creating a breathtaking "multi-wavelength" depiction of this event.

The fact that the galaxy in question is nearer Earth than others investigated earlier made it easier to trace a jet that emerges when a star is destroyed. The other galaxies were at least three times further away than this one, which is located roughly 300 million light years distant. It is 5.88 trillion miles per light year.

An "accretion disk" is an enormous spinning mass that arises when a black hole takes in matter from space. The multinational team's initial step was to rule out the idea that the light came from this type of pre-existing disk. That made it easier to verify that a recently imprisoned star was the cause of the galaxy's abrupt surge in brightness.

Van Velzen stated, "The demise of a star by a black hole is exquisitely complex, and far from understood." "Our observations reveal that the streams of stellar debris can quickly organize and form a jet, which is important information for developing a comprehensive theory of these events."

Van Velzen examined jets from supermassive black holes for his PhD dissertation at Radboud University in the Netherlands, which he finished last year. He stated in the last sentence of the dissertation that he hoped to find out about these occurrences in four years. As it happened, the time it took for his dissertation defense was only a few months following the ceremony.

It wasn't only Van Velzen and his group searching for radio signals from this unfortunate star. Harvard researchers used radio telescopes in New Mexico to examine the same source, and they published their findings online. Early in November, both teams presented their findings in a workshop in Jerusalem. The two rival squads have never faced each other in person before.

Van Velzen described the encounter as "an intense, yet very productive exchange of ideas about this source." "We still get along great; in fact, the leader of the rival group and I went on a long hike close to the Dead Sea."