Decade of Data Shows Supermassive Black Hole Swallowing a Star

For the first time ever, astronomers have imaged the formation of a jet of star trying to escape the powerful gravity of a supermassive black hole.

If anyone ever needed proof of a supermassive black hole's power, look no further than this latest research. An international team of astronomers caught a supermassive black hole in the process of tearing through a star, ripping it apart, and then eating it. 

The black hole rests between colliding galaxies in an area known as Arp 299 -- roughly 150 million light-years away from Earth. The black hole itself is roughly 20 million times bigger than our sun. The doomed star that became food to the black hole? It's more than double the sun's mass, according to the team. 

Scientists Miguel Perez-Torres of the Astrophysical Institute of Granada, Space and Seppo Mattila in the University of Turku in Finland led the team of 36 researchers in figuring out exactly what was going on. Astronomers around the world have determined this is the first instance scientists have ever been able to track and image the formation of a jet of material out of a black hole.

“Never before have we been able to directly observe the formation and evolution of a jet from one of these events,” said Perez-Torres.

The team used the National Science Foundation's Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) and its 25-meter antenna in order to get a better read of the jet material. Their first indication of jet material came over a decade ago. Astronomers with the William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands noted a bright burst of infrared emission from the Arp 299 area. A few months later, the VLBA spotted a new source of emissions from that same location.

"As time passed, the new object stayed bright at infrared and radio wavelengths, but not in visible light and X-rays," said Mattila. "The most likely explanation is that thick interstellar gas and dust near the galaxy’s center absorbed the X-rays and visible light, then re-radiated it as infrared."

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The team reported to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory that most galaxies have their own supermassive black holes. Those masses contain up to a billion times more mass than the Sun itself. Black holes make mass so concentrated that not even light can escape it.

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Supermassive black holes are exceptionally strong in that when they draw in materials, those materials form a disk around the black hole causing jets to launch out. 

"Much of the time, however, supermassive black holes are not actively devouring anything, so they are in a quiet state," Perez-Torres said. "Tidal disruption events can provide us with a unique opportunity to advance our understanding of the formation and evolution of jets in the vicinities of these powerful objects," he added.

Mattila explained further.

“Because of the dust that absorbed any visible light, this particular tidal disruption event may be just the tip of the iceberg of what until now has been a hidden population,” Mattila said. “By looking for these events with infrared and radio telescopes, we may be able to discover many more, and learn from them."

The researchers hope this surprising discovery can help them understand what goes on in the distance universe while also gain a better understanding of how the galaxies developed billions of years ago.

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