A black hole devoured a star and created a Solar System-sized donut

New Hubble Space Telescope readings show the last moments of a star before it's devoured by a black hole.
Chris Young
An artist's illustration showing a black hole devour a star.
An artist's illustration showing a black hole devour a star.

NASA, ESA, Leah Hustak (STScI)  

Astronomers used NASA's iconic Hubble Space Telescope to record detailed observations of a star's final moments before it was torn apart by a black hole.

The violent encounter, also known as a "tidal disruption event," both pulls in material from the star and also shoots radiation out into the cosmos. In the process, a massive donut-shaped gas cloud is formed.

As per a NASA blog post, the astronomers used Hubble to focus on the immense gravitational impact on the dying star.

New Hubble readings detail dramatic black hole event

The star that is being devoured in NASA's observations is called AT2022dsb. While the space agency wasn't able to image the star itself in great detail — its 300 million light-years away — Hubble's readings provided a wealth of data in the form of spectroscopy readings in ultraviolet light.

NASA explains in its blog post that tidal disruption events are quite rare, as the global astronomical community has detected approximately 100 of them in total. Estimates suggest that any galaxy with a quiescent supermassive black hole at its center will see it ingest a star approximately once every 100,000 years.

A black hole devoured a star and created a Solar System-sized donut
An artist's illustration showing a black hole devour a star.

"There are still very few tidal events that are observed in ultraviolet light given the observing time," said Emily Engelthaler of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "This is really unfortunate because there's a lot of information that you can get from the ultraviolet spectra. We're excited because we can get these details about what the debris is doing. The tidal event can tell us a lot about a black hole."

New Hubble discovery "an exciting place for scientists to be"

Hubble's light readings are indicative of a very bright, donut-shaped area of gas that was once the star. When the black hole shredded the star, it left this signature behind, which is known as a torus. This massive torus swirls around the black hole and is roughly the size of our solar system, according to NASA.

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"We really are still getting our heads around the event," said Peter Maksym of the CfA. "You shred the star, and then it's got this material that's making its way into the black hole. And so you've got models where you think you know what is going on, and then you've got what you actually see. This is an exciting place for scientists to be: right at the interface of the known and the unknown."

Though Hubble is showing its age — astronomers feared the iconic observatory's demise after a computer glitch last year — the new observations show it still has some life left. When Hubble does eventually stop its scientific operations, it will have left behind a stunning legacy, and the astronomical community will be looking to a future of fascinating discoveries from James Webb and its planned successors.