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Telescope captures moment massive black hole sucks in star like spaghetti

Nothing can escape a black hole because its gravitational pull is so strong

Artist’s impression of the star being 'sphaghettified' and consumed by a supermassive black hole. Courtesy: European Southern Observatory 
Artist’s impression of the star being 'sphaghettified' and consumed by a supermassive black hole. Courtesy: European Southern Observatory 

Astronomers have captured the moment a supermassive black hole ripped apart a star and "sucked it in" in an event called spaghettification.

Nothing can escape a black hole’s gravitational pull, not even light, so the star near it was devoured after being ‘stretched’.

The phenomenon took place last year, 215 million light years away – believed to be the closest to Earth an event like this has happened.

Astronomers spotted the rare blast of light from a star being ripped apart by the supermassive black hole through massive telescopes. The research was published this week in Royal Astronomical Society.

“When an unlucky star wanders too close to a supermassive black hole in the centre of a galaxy, the extreme gravitational pull of the black hole shreds the star into thin streams of material,” said Thomas Wevers, author of the study.

Astronomers used advanced telescopes, including the European Space Agency’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and the New Technology Telescope.

Initially they had trouble investigating the burst of light because dust and debris obstructed the view.

Through this research, they have learnt that the black hole was the cause behind the debris.

“We found that, when a black hole devours a star, it can launch a powerful blast of material outward that obstructs our view,” said Samantha Oates, who participated in the study.

“This happens because the energy released as the black hole eats up stellar material propels the star’s debris outward.”

The team studied the tidal disruption event – the cosmic event that creates spaghettification – shortly after the star was ripped apart.

Kate Alexander, Nasa’s Einstein Fellow at Northwestern University, said the unique “peek behind the curtain” allowed the team to locate the origin of the light burst and follow it in real time as the black hole 'ate’ the star.

“Because we caught it early, we could actually see the curtain of dust and debris being drawn up as the black hole launched a powerful outflow of material with velocities up to 10, 000 kilometres per second,” she said.

Updated: October 14, 2020 08:45 AM

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