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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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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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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A Black Hole Burps out Material, Years After Feasting on a Star

. Credit: DESY/Science Communication Lab

Originally predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, black holes are the most extreme object in the known Universe. These objects form when stars reach the end of their life cycle, blow off their outer layers, and are so gravitationally powerful that nothing (not even light) can escape their surfaces. They are also of interest because they allow astronomers to observe the laws of physics under the most extreme conditions. Periodically, these gravitational behemoths will devoir stars and other objects in their vicinity, releasing tremendous amounts of light and radiation.

In October 2018, astronomers witnessed one such event when observing a black hole in a galaxy located 665 million light-years from Earth. While astronomers have witnessed events like this before, another team from the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics noticed something unprecedented when they examined the same black hole three years later. As they explained in a recent study, the black hole was shining very brightly because it was ejecting (or “burping”) leftover material from the star at half the speed of light. Their findings could provide new clues about how black holes feed and grow over time.

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Astronomers Discover an Intermediate-Mass Black Hole as it Destroys a Star

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

Supermassive black holes (SMBH) reside in the center of galaxies like the Milky Way. They are mind-bogglingly massive, ranging from 1 million to 10 billion solar masses. Their smaller brethren, intermediate-mass black holes (IMBH), ranging between 100 and 100,000 solar masses, are harder to find.

Astronomers have spotted an intermediate-mass black hole destroying a star that got too close. They’ve learned a lot from their observations and hope to find even more of these black holes. Observing more of them may lead to understanding how SMBHs got so massive.

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Astronomers Track a Neutrino Back to the Source. Where a Black Hole Tore Apart a Star

Neutrinos are notoriously finicky particles.  Hundreds of trillions pass through a person’s body every second, yet they hardly seem to interact with anything (though they actually do a lot).  Even more hard to find are the “high energy” neutrinos that are believed to be formed as the outcome of some of the most violent events in the universe.  Now, researchers using NASA’s Swift telescope have found a high energy neutrino for the first time from one type of those ultra-violent events – a tidal disruption.  But something was a little bit off about it.

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Astronomers Watch a Star Get Spaghettified by a Black Hole

A star gets spaghettified as it is consumed by a black hole. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The gravitational dance between massive bodies, tidal forces occur because the pull of gravity from an object depends upon your distance from it. So, for example, the side of Earth near the Moon is pulled a bit more than the side opposite the Moon. As a result, the Earth stretches and flattens a bit. On Earth, this effect is subtle but strong enough to give the oceans high and low tides. Near a black hole, however, tidal forces can be much stronger, creating an effect known as spaghettification.

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Astronomers Watched a Star System Die

This is an artist’s impression of a white dwarf (burned-out) star accreting rocky debris left behind by the star’s surviving planetary system. It was observed by Hubble in the Hyades star cluster. At lower right, an asteroid can be seen falling toward a Saturn-like disk of dust that is encircling the dead star. Infalling asteroids pollute the white dwarf’s atmosphere with silicon. Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

About 570 light years from Earth lies WD 1145+017, a white dwarf star. In many respects it’s a typical white dwarf star. Its mass is about 0.6 solar masses, and its temperature is about 15,900 Kelvin. But five years ago, a team of astronomers wrote a paper on the white dwarf, showing that something unusual was going on.

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This is What Happens When a Black Hole Gobbles up a Star

Close-up of star near a supermassive black hole (artist’s impression). Credit: ESA/Hubble, ESO, M. Kornmesser

At the center of our galaxy resides a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) known as Sagittarius A. Based on ongoing observations, astronomers have determined that this SMBH measures 44 million km (27.34 million mi) in diameter and has an estimated mass of 4.31 million Solar Masses. On occasion, a star will wander too close to Sag A and be torn apart in a violent process known as a tidal disruption event (TDE).

These events cause the release of bright flares of radiation, which let astronomers know that a star has been consumed. Unfortunately, for decades, astronomers have been unable to distinguish these events from other galactic phenomena. But thanks to a new study from by an international team of astrophysicists, astronomers now have a unified model that explains recent observations of these extreme events.

The study – which recently appeared in the Astrophysical Journal Letters under the title “A Unified Model for Tidal Disruption Events” – was led by Dr. Jane Lixin Dai, a physicist with the Niels Bohr Institute’s Dark Cosmology Center. She was joined by members from University of Maryland’s Joint Space-Science Institute and the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC).

Illustration of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF
Illustration of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

As Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz – the professor and chair of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, the Niels Bohr Professor at the University of Copenhagen, and a co-author on the paper – explained in a UCSC press release:

“Only in the last decade or so have we been able to distinguish TDEs from other galactic phenomena, and the new model will provide us with the basic framework for understanding these rare events.”

In most galaxies, SMBHs do not actively consume any material and therefore do not emit any light, which distinguishes them from galaxies that have Active Galactic Nuclei (AGNs). Tidal disruption events are therefore rare, occurring only once about every 10,000 years in a typical galaxy. However, when a star does get torn apart, it results in the release of an intense amount of radiation. As Dr. Dai explained:

“It is interesting to see how materials get their way into the black hole under such extreme conditions. As the black hole is eating the stellar gas, a vast amount of radiation is emitted. The radiation is what we can observe, and using it we can understand the physics and calculate the black hole properties. This makes it extremely interesting to go hunting for tidal disruption events.”

Illustration of emissions from a tidal disruption event shows in cross section what happens when the material from a disrupted star is devoured by a black hole. Credit: Jane Lixin Dai

In the past few years, a few dozen candidates for tidal disruption events (TDEs) have been detected using wide-field optical and UV transient surveys as well as X-ray telescopes. While the physics are expected to be the same for all TDEs, astronomers have noted that a few distinct classes of TDEs appear to exist. While some emit mostly x-rays, others emit mostly visible and ultraviolet light.

As a result, theorists have struggled to understand the diverse properties observed and create a coherent model that can explain them all. For the sake of their model, Dr. Dai and her colleagues combined elements from general relativity, magnetic fields, radiation, and gas hydrodynamics. The team also relied on state-of-the-art computational tools and some recently-acquired large computer clusters funded by the Villum Foundation for Jens Hjorth (head of DARK Cosmology Center), the U.S. National Science Foundation and NASA.

Using the model that resulted, the team concluded that it is the viewing angle of the observer that accounts for the differences in observation.  Essentially, different galaxies are oriented randomly with respect to observers on Earth, who see different aspects of TDEs depending on their orientation. As Ramirez-Ruiz explained:

“It is like there is a veil that covers part of a beast. From some angles we see an exposed beast, but from other angles we see a covered beast. The beast is the same, but our perceptions are different.”

Artist’s impression of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. Credit: lsst.org

In the coming years, a number of planned survey projects are expected to provide much more data on TDEs, which will help expand the field of research into this phenomena. These include the Young Supernova Experiment (YSE) transient survey, which will be led by the DARK Cosmology Center at the Niels Bohr Institute and UC Santa Cruz, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescopes (LSST) being built in Chile.

According to Dr. Dai, this new model shows what astronomers can expect to see when viewing TDEs from different angles and will allow them to fit different events into a coherent framework. “We will observe hundreds to thousands of tidal disruption events in a few years,” she said. “This will give us a lot of ‘laboratories’ to test our model and use it to understand more about black holes.”

This improved understanding of how black holes occasionally consume stars will also provide additional tests for general relativity, gravitational wave research, and help astronomers to learn more about the evolution of galaxies.

Further Reading: UCSC, Astrophysical Journal Letters