This Is What it Looks Like When a Black Hole Shreds a Star

By Maddie Stone on at

When a star wanders too close to a black hole, immense gravitational forces begin to rip it apart in an epic cosmic slaying called a “tidal disruption event.” Some of the star’s mass is flung outward into space, while the rest is drawn in, triggering a powerful flare that showers the sky with x-rays.

Using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes, a team of astronomers has now pieced together one such astronomical feasting frenzy. The event in question, appropriately named “ASASSN-14li,” was spotted near the center of PGC 043234, a galaxy that lies 290 million light years from Earth.

It’s the closest tidal disruption event we’ve discovered in a decade, and astronomers are hopeful that it’ll help us develop theories on the structure and evolution of such cosmic happenings. Findings to date, including hints of wind attempting to flee the black hole’s gravity, are detailed today in the journal Nature.

All very cool. But more saliently, what does a black hole shredding a star look like? NASA’s got us covered there.

“During the tidal disruption event, filaments containing much of the star’s mass fall toward the black hole,” NASA writes. “Eventually these gaseous filaments merge into a smooth, hot disk glowing brightly in X-rays. As the disk forms, its central region heats up tremendously, which drives a flow of material, called a wind, away from the disk.”

Stephen Hawking recently made headlines when he declared that “If you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up. There’s a way out.” Hawking was referring to a theory which suggests that those luckless enough to get devoured by a black hole might not get shredded and compressed for all eternity — instead, they might end up in another universe. Much more comforting!

But based on what we’re learning about how black holes deal with loitering stars, I’m gonna go ahead and say that’s a pretty risky chance to take. [Read the full paper at Nature h/t NASA]

Top: Artist’s depiction of the tidal disruption ASASSN-14li. Image Credit: NASA/CXC/U. Michigan/J. Miller et al.; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss