A number of international scientists are lucky to be able to watch a black hole consume a star, a phenomenon that is as strange as it is rare. They watched as the black hole ate up the star and then ejected a flare that shot at almost the speed of light.
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Led by Sjoet van Velzen, a Hubble fellow at Johns Hopkins University, the researchers published their findings in the journal Science.
The star was discovered to be nearly as large as our sun and when it happened to leave its normal orbit, it was sucked in by the gravitational pull of a massive black hole which ended up eating it up – with a stream of matter being expelled.
"These events are extremely rare," van Velzen said. "It's the first time we see everything from the stellar destruction followed by the launch of a conical outflow, also called a jet, and we watched it unfold over several months."
Black holes are located in deep space and seem to fill the emptiness of space. It is usually so thick that no light, gas, or matter would pass through it, yet it is mainly invisible. The largest of these black holes are known to take up the core of larger galaxies, but this particular one under observation was located at the lighter end of a black hole spectrum.
It was first seen in 2014 by Ohio State University researchers using the optical telescope in Hawaii. Joined by 13 other scientists from the Netherlands, UK, Australia and the US, van Velzon and his team used data culled from satellites and ground telescopes to collect optical and radio signals as well as x-ray images of the celestial phenomenon of a black hole swallowing up a star.
The galaxy in which this event occurred is about 300 million light years (1 light year is 5.88 trillion miles) away from Earth, even though others happen to be three times or more farther away from us.
"The destruction of a star by a black hole is beautifully complicated, and far from understood," van Velzen said. "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."
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Having studied jets emanating from large black holes during his doctoral dissertation at Radboud University in the Netherlands; he thought it would take him at least 4 years to catch sight of jet streams being expelled by supermassive black holes, but this became possible within a few months of completing his thesis.