Caught in the act: a black hole rips apart an unfortunate star

After passing too close to a supermassive black hole, a star is torn apart into a thin stream of gas, which is then pulled back around the black hole and slams into itself, creating a bright shock and ejecting more hot material, in this artist's conception released on September 26, 2019. Illustration by Robin Dienel/Courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science/Handout via REUTERS

By Joey Routlette

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Scientists have captured a view of a colossal black hole violently ripping apart a doomed star, illustrating an extraordinary and chaotic cosmic event from beginning to end for the first time using NASA’s planet-hunting telescope.

The U.S. space agency’s orbiting Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, better known as TESS, revealed the detailed timeline of a star 375 million light-years away warping and spiraling into the unrelenting gravitational pull of a supermassive black hole, researchers said on Thursday.

The star, roughly the same size as our sun, was eventually sucked into oblivion in a rare cosmic occurrence that astronomers call a tidal disruption event, they added.

Astronomers used an international network of telescopes to detect the phenomenon before turning to TESS, whose permanent viewing zones designed to hunt distant planets caught the beginning of the violent event, proving effective its unique method of surveilling the cosmos.

“This was really a combination of both being good and being lucky, and sometimes that’s what you need to push the science forward,” said astronomer Thomas Holoien of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who led the research published in the Astrophysical Journal.

Such phenomena happen when a star ventures too close to a supermassive black hole, objects that reside at the center of most large galaxies including our Milky Way. The black hole’s tremendous gravitational forces tear the star to shreds, with some of its material tossed into space and the rest plunging into the black hole, forming a disk of hot, bright gas as it is swallowed.

“Specifically, we are able to measure the rate at which it gets brighter after it starts brightening, and we also observed a drop in its temperature and brightness that is unique,” Holoien said.

Observing the oscillation of light as the black hole gobbles the star and spews stellar material in an outward spiral could help astronomers understand the black hole’s behavior, a scientific mystery since physicist Albert Einstein’s work more than a century ago examined gravity’s influence on light in motion.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Will Dunham)

Scientists confirm Einstein’s supermassive black hole theory

Communication Lab in Kiel Germany, released on July 12, 2018. Courtesy DESY, Science Communication Lab/Handout via REUTERS

BERLIN (Reuters) – A team of international scientists observing a star in the Milky Way have for the first time confirmed Einstein’s predictions of what happens to the motion of a star passing close to a supermassive black hole.

Einstein’s 100-year-old general theory of relativity predicted that light from stars would be stretched to longer wavelengths by the extreme gravitational field of a black hole, and the star would appear redder, an effect known as gravitational redshift.

“This was the first time we could test directly Einstein’s theory of general relativity near a supermassive black hole,” Frank Eisenhauer, senior astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, told journalists.

“At the time of Einstein, he could not think or dream of what we are showing today,” he said.

A team of scientists at the European Southern Observatory started monitoring the central area of the Milky Way using its Very Large Telescope to observe the motion of stars near the supermassive black hole 26 years ago.

The black hole is 26,000 light years away from Earth and has a mass 4 million times that of the Sun.

The scientists selected one star, S2, to follow. With an orbit of 16 years, they knew it would return close to the black hole in 2018.

Over 20 years, the accuracy of their instruments has improved and so in May 2018, they were able to take extremely precise measurements in conjunction with scientists from around the world.

This showed the star’s orbital velocity increasing to more than 25 million kph (15.5 million mph) as it approached the black hole.

The star’s wavelength stretched as it sought to escape the gravitational pull of the supermassive black hole, shifting its appearance from blue to red, Odele Straub from the Paris Observatory said.

The scientists now hope to observe other theories of black hole physics, she said.

“This is the first step on a long road that the team has done over many years and which we hope to continue in the next years,” MPE’s Reinhard Genzel, who led the international team, said.

(Reporting by Victoria Bryan, editing by David Evans)