Findings from NASA's space telescope provides new insight into what actually happens when a star is eaten by a black hole.
Supermassive black holes are known for their veracious appetite, feeding on nearby gas and other objects. Their gravitational pull is strong enough to suck in everything that gets too close to them, including stars.
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When a black hole eats up a star, an event called "stellar tidal disruption", it releases an enormous amount of energy or a powerful flare of light that echoes through space. These brilliant flares of light have not been directly observed before.
For the first time, astronomers have been able to clearly look at this intense process and these observations were not possible without the data from NASA’s space telescope Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). The findings will not only provide greater insight into one of the space’s least understood phenomena but also help understand black holes in general. How black holes swallows a nearby star and what actually happen when the star is eaten by a black hole.
“This is the first time we have clearly seen the infrared light echoes from multiple tidal disruption events.” Lead author Sjoert van Velzen from Johns Hopkins University said.
To detect tidal disruption event, researchers utilized a unique approach. They studied the dust surrounding the black hole and measured the infrared radiation released from it. Dust that hangs out around a black hole is usually destroyed by the high-energy radiations from tidal disruption events. But as the dust moves further way, its chances of survival increase because the radiation that reaches to distant dust is not intense anymore. Once dust survives the heat, it gives off infrared radiation, which holds clues about the powerful flare of light released after consuming a star.
Researchers used WISE to map entire sky after every six months. That was to observe the variations in radiation emitted from the dust and to get more precise measurements of the flare coming from stellar tidal disruption.
“Our study confirms that the dust is there and that we can use it to determine how much energy was generated in the destruction of the star,” said Varoujan Gorjian, co-author and an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena.
“The black hole has destroyed everything between itself and this dust shell. It's as though the black hole has cleaned its room by throwing flames.”