Black hole kills star by 'spaghettification' as telescopes watch

Telescopes have captured the rare light flash from a dying star as it was ripped apart by a supermassive black hole

This rarely seen "tidal disruption event" — which creates spaghettification in stars as they stretch and stretch – is the closest such known event to happen, at only 215 million light-years from Earth. (For comparison, the nearest star system to Earth – Alpha Centauri — is roughly 4 light-years away, and the Milky Way is roughly 200,000 light years in diameter.) One light-year is the distance light travels in a year, about 6 trillion miles (10 trillion kilometers). 

"The idea of a black hole 'sucking in' a nearby star sounds like science fiction. But this is exactly what happens in a tidal disruption event," the new study's lead author Matt Nicholl, a lecturer and Royal Astronomical Society research fellow at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, said in a European Southern Observatory statement. Researchers caught the event in action using numerous telescopes, including ESO's Very Large Telescope and New Technology Telescope.

Related: The strangest black holes in the universe

An artist's illustration of a star's death by "spaghettification" as it is ripped to shreds by a supermassive black hole. Scientists using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope has spotted such an event. (Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

"When an unlucky star wanders too close to a supermassive black hole in the center of a galaxy, the extreme gravitational pull of the black hole shreds the star into thin streams of material," co-author Thomas Wevers said in the same statement. Wevers is an ESO Fellow in Santiago, Chile and was at the Institute of Astronomy at the United Kingdom's University of Cambridge when he did the work. 

It has been difficult to see these events in the past because the black hole eating up the star has a tendency to shoot out material from the dying star, such as dust, that obscures the view, ESO officials said.  Luckily, the newly studied event was studied shortly after the star ripped to shreds.

Related: Black Holes: There's no escape (infographic)

Researchers studied the event, known as AT 2019qiz, over six months as the flare became bright and then faded away. Observations took place in ultraviolet, optical, X-ray and radio wavelengths. Looking at the event in this comprehensive way showed how the material leaves the star and the flare  the star sends as its dying gasp, researchers said.

The team also estimated the size of the doomed star at about the same mass as our own sun. It didn't have a chance against the black hole, which has a mass of more than 1 million times that of the sun.

AT 2019qiz also acts as a bellwether for learning about how matter behaves in the extreme environment around supermassive black holes, the team said. A study based on the research was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon:

  • X on Earth
    Where are the meatballs?
  • kamikrazee
    What kind of data was collected? Were there any images actually collected, or do we, the uneducated but still-able-to-read public have to settle for animation?
  • youngsteppers
    No experiment have been or data have made to know if this star is destroyed when technology is made to send a camera through a black hole they will see space open up to other galaxies space is infinity
  • rocketman6799
    X on Earth said:
    Where are the meatballs?
    Exactly.........just you just love the "make it up" as we go along just so it looks like they are doing things to justify there existence.
  • george4908
    So I guess the Flying Spaghetti Monster is real after all. Huh.
  • Keep on rockin in the fre
    As a journalist, I always show the object that I'm writing about, when possible. here - the story is about what telescopes captured, yet there is no photo..