Black holes are notorious for gobbling stars and ripping apart galaxies, but it’s not always a quick process. Astronomers reported Thursday they watched a star being swallowed from beginning to end over a period of several months.
And for the first time, they could detect a spurt of plasma at the event horizon, they report in the journal Science.
"Our observations are the first to sample the light curve within 30 days of the peak," Sjoert van Velzen at Johns Hopkins University and colleagues wrote.
“It’s the first time we see everything from the stellar destruction followed by the launch of a conical outflow, also called a jet, and we watched it unfold over several months," van Velzen added in a statement.
The star was about the same size as our sun and its slide into the black hole, called ASASSN-14li, was first spotted in 2014 by a team at Ohio State University. Van Velzen and colleagues quickly trained radio, x-ray and optical telescopes as well as satellites onto the spectacle in a galaxy about 300 million light years away.
They caught it.
Previous observations of black holes in action have come years after the objects have started to take in a star. This time, the team was quick enough to see a blip – a burst of plasma that shot out soon after the star passed the rim of the hole.
“The destruction of a star by a black hole is beautifully complicated, and far from understood,” van Velzen said in a statement.
“Previous efforts to find evidence for these jets, including my own, were late to the game.”
Astronomers think that supermassive black holes can be found at the centers of most massive galaxies, including our own Milky Way. Their powerful gravity can pull in objects that come too close – although they do not “suck” in objects from far away. They often steadily pull in dust and gas from surrounding space.
While most matter cannot escape, light, radio waves and plasma often does as an object is pulled into the black hole.