Scientists capture a black hole swallowing a star for the first time ever

An artist's impression of a star being pulled in by the gravity of a black hole (left), and the resulting jet of plasma (right)(Credit: Johns Hopkins University/Amadeo Bachar)

An international team of researchers has observed a black hole swallowing up a star for the first time. The rare event took place over several months, and the results of the study confirm an existing black hole theory.

Black holes are huge, extremely dense areas of space with gravitational pulls so extreme that neither matter nor light can escape. This property can make them difficult to observe, appearing as huge voids in space. Theories suggest that when a large volume of gas is pulled in by such an object, a fast moving jet of plasma travelling at close to the speed of light escapes from near the black hole rim.

Over the last 12 months, astronomers were provided with a rare opportunity to study such an event, giving them an chance to test the theory. The observations focused on a supermassive black hole roughly one million times the mass of our sun, located some 300 million light years away.

The event was first spotted in December 2014 by astronomers at the Ohio State University, who were making use of an optical telescope in Hawaii. A team from the UK's University of Oxford then turned radio telescopes towards the object, catching the event just in time. Overall, the international effort resulted in the gathering of optical, X-ray and radio data, which come together to provide a detailed and highly valuable record of the event.

The researchers were able to confirm that the observed light was not the product of a pre-existing mass produced when a black hole consumes matter, known as an accretion disk. Instead, the multi-wavelength portrait confirmed that the increased light emission was the result of a newly trapped star, supporting the existing theories surrounding such an event.

"The destruction of a star by a black hole is beautifully complicated, and far from understood," says John Hopkins University's Sjoert van Velzen. "From our observations, we learn the streams of stellar debris can organize and make a jet rather quickly, which is valuable input for constructing a complete theory of these events."

The findings of the study were published in the journal Science.

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