A distant black hole is caught destroying a star

A distant black hole is caught destroying a star

This artist’s impression illustrates what it might look like if a star gets too close to a black hole, where the star is compressed by the black hole’s intense gravity. Some of the star’s material is drawn in and swirls around the black hole that forms the disk seen in this image. In rare cases, like this one, jets of matter and radiation are shot out from the poles of the black hole. (ESO, M. Kornmesser via Reuters)

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WASHINGTON — More than halfway through the known universe, astronomers have detected an act of extreme violence when a black hole shredded a star that wandered too close to this celestial savage. But this was no ordinary example of a voracious black hole.

It was one of only four examples — and the first since 2011 — of a black hole observed as it ripped apart a passing star in what’s called a tidal disturbance, then spun light beams from high-energy particles in opposite directions in space, researchers said. . And it was both the farthest and brightest event ever recorded.

Astronomers described the event in studies published Wednesday in the journals Nature and Nature Astronomy.

The culprit appears to be a supermassive black hole believed to be hundreds of millions of times the mass of our sun and located about 8.5 billion light-years from Earth. A light-year is the distance light travels in a year, 5.9 trillion miles.

“We think the star was similar to our sun, maybe more massive but of an ordinary kind,” said astronomer Igor Andreoni of the University of Maryland and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, lead author of one of the studies.

The event was detected in February via the Zwicky Transient Facility astronomical survey using a camera attached to a telescope at California’s Palomar Observatory. The distance was calculated using the Very Large Telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile.

“When a star dangerously approaches a black hole – don’t worry, this won’t happen to the sun – it is violently torn apart by the black hole’s gravity – similar to how the moon pulls the tides on Earth, but with greater power,” he said. University of Minnesota astronomer and study co-author Michael Coughlin.

“Then pieces of the star are caught in a rapidly spinning disk that orbits the black hole. Finally, the black hole digests what’s left of the doomed star in the disk. In some very rare cases, which we estimate to be 100 times rarer, powerful jets of material are launched in opposite directions when the tidal disturbance occurs,” Coughlin added.

Andreoni and Coughlin said the black hole was likely spinning rapidly, which could help explain how the two powerful jets were launched into space at nearly the speed of light.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology astronomer Dheeraj Pasham, lead author of the other study, said the researchers were able to observe the event very early — within a week of the black hole beginning to consume the doomed star.

Although researchers detect tidal disturbances about twice a month, jet-producing events are extremely rare. One of the jets emanating from this black hole appears to be pointing toward Earth, making it appear brighter than if it were going in any other direction — an effect called “Doppler boosting” that’s similar to the amplified sound of a passing police siren.

The supermassive black hole is believed to be at the center of a galaxy, just as the Milky Way and most galaxies have one at their core. But the tidal disturbance was so bright that it obscured the light from the Milky Way’s stars.

“At its peak, the source appeared brighter than 1,000 trillion suns,” Pasham said.

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