Hungry Black Hole was Already Feasting 800 Million Years After the Big Bang

Artist view of an active supermassive black hole. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Black holes swallow everything—including light—which explains why we can’t see them. But we can observe their immediate surroundings and learn about them. And when they’re on a feeding binge, their surroundings become even more luminous and observable.

This increased luminosity allowed astronomers to find a black hole that was feasting on material only 800 million years after the Universe began.

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The Donut That Used To Be a Star

This sequence of artist's illustrations shows how a black hole can devour a bypassing star. 1) A normal star passes near a supermassive black hole in the center of a galaxy. 2) The star's outer gasses are pulled into the black hole's gravitational field. 3) The star is shredded as tidal forces pull it apart. 4) The stellar remnants are pulled into a donut-shaped ring around the black hole, and will eventually fall into the black hole, unleashing a tremendous amount of light and high-energy radiation. Credit: NASA, ESA, Leah Hustak (STScI)

The death of a star is one of the most dramatic natural events in the Universe. Some stars die in dramatic supernova explosions, leaving nebulae behind as shimmering remnants of their former splendour. Some simply wither away as their hydrogen runs out, billowing into a red giant as they do so.

But others are consumed by behemoth black holes, and as they’re destroyed, the black hole’s powerful gravity tears the star apart and draws its gas into a donut-shaped ring around the black hole.

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A Black Hole is Savoring its Meal, Feeding on the Same Star Over and Over Again

This illustration shows a glowing stream of material from a star, being devoured and torn to shreds by a supermassive black hole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Something extraordinary happens about every 10,000 to 100,000 years in galaxies like the Milky Way. An unwary star approaches the supermassive black hole (SMBH) at the galaxy’s center and is torn apart by the SMBH’s overpowering gravity. Astronomers call the phenomenon a tidal disruption event (TDE.)

Usually, a TDE spells doom for the star as its gas is torn away into the black hole’s accretion ring, causing a bright flaring visible for hundreds of millions of light years. But researchers have found one black hole that’s playing with its food.

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What Does it Take to Make Black Holes Collide?

Simulation of the emitted light from a supermassive black hole binary system. (Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

In a recent study published in Astronomy and Astrophysical Letters, a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) used various computer models to examine 69 confirmed binary black holes to help determine their origin, and found their data results changed based on the model’s configurations, and the researchers wish to better understand both how and why this occurs and what steps can be taken to have more consistent results.

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Webb’s New Image Reveals a Galaxy Awash in Star Formation

This JWST image shows NGC 7469, a luminous, face-on spiral galaxy approximately 90 000 light-years in diameter that lies roughly 220 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Pegasus. Image Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, L. Armus, A. S. Evans

When a spiral galaxy presents itself just right, observations reveal more detail. That’s the case with NGC 7469, a spiral galaxy about 220 million light-years away. It’s face-on towards us, and the James Webb Space Telescope captured its revealing scientific portrait.

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A Star Came too Close to a Black Hole. It Didn’t End Well

A disk of hot gas swirls around a black hole in this illustration. The stream of gas stretching to the right is what remains of a star that was pulled apart by the black hole. A cloud of hot plasma (gas atoms with their electrons stripped away) above the black hole is known as a corona. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Black holes are confounding objects that stretch physics to its limits. The most massive ones lurk in the centers of large galaxies like ours. They dominate the galactic center, and when a star gets too close, the black hole’s powerful gravitational force tears the star apart as they feed on it. Not even the most massive stars can resist.

But supermassive black holes (SMBHs) didn’t start out that massive. They attained their gargantuan mass by accreting material over vast spans of time and by merging with other black holes.

There are large voids in our understanding of how SMBHs grow and evolve, and one way astrophysicists fill those voids is by watching black holes as they consume stars.

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Black Holes Shouldn’t be Able to Merge, but Dozens of Mergers Have Been Detected. How Do They Do It?

black holes in a globular cluster
This is an artist’s impression created to visualize the concentration of black holes at the center of globular cluster NGC 6397. Credit: ESA/Hubble, N. Bartmann

Who knows what lurks in the hearts of some globular clusters? Astronomers using a collection of gravitational wave observatories found evidence of collections of smaller black holes dancing together as binaries in the hearts of globulars. What’s more, they’ve detected an increased number of gravitational wave events when some of these stellar-mass black holes crashed together.

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A Black Hole has been Burping for 100 Million Years

Artist view of an active supermassive black hole. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Black holes are gluttonous behemoths that lurk in the center of galaxies. Almost everybody knows that nothing can escape them, not even light. So when anything made of simple matter gets too close, whether a planet, a star or a gas cloud, it’s doomed.

But the black hole doesn’t eat it at once. It plays with its food like a fussy kid. Sometimes, it spews out light.

When the black hole is not only at the center of a galaxy but the center of a cluster of galaxies, these burps and jets carve massive cavities out of the hot gas at the center of the cluster called radio bubbles.

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A Black Hole Consumed a Star and Released the Light of a Trillion Suns

A star is being consumed by a distant supermassive black hole. Astronomers call this a tidal disruption event (TDE). As the black hole rips apart the star, two jets of material moving with almost the speed of light are launched in opposite directions. One of the jets was aimed directly at Earth. Image credit: Carl Knox (OzGrav, ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery, Swinburne University of Technology)

When a flash of light appears somewhere in the sky, astronomers notice. When it appears in a region of the sky not known to host a stellar object that’s flashed before, they really sit up and take notice. In astronomical parlance, objects that emit flashing light are called transients.

Earlier this year, astronomers spotted a transient that flashed with the light of a trillion Suns.

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