After Watching a Black Hole Swallow a Star, Scientists Add Whole New Dimension to Our Understanding | The Weather Channel – Articles from The Weather Channel


This illustration shows a glowing stream of material from a star, torn to shreds as it was being devoured by a supermassive black hole. The feeding black hole is surrounded by a ring of dust, not unlike the plate of a toddler is surrounded by crumbs after a meal.


A lot of what happens in the vast, dark cosmic universe is hidden from the eyes of Earth-bound astronomers and even telescopes. Getting a glimpse of the activities happening millions and billions of light-years away is bound to be a tedious task. Therefore, observing even one such event can open new avenues of understanding the mysterious universe.

Recently, a team of scientists from the USA, Israel and the Netherlands got a glimpse of how black holes snack on stars. And these cosmic monsters are incredibly messy eaters, splattering around traces of what they eat, much like a toddler.

Understanding black holes through x-rays

Scientists presume that a class of black holes known as intermediate-mass black holes exists in abundance in the core of several galaxies. But not much has been known about them, and this event gave us some insights into one such black hole.

“The fact that we were able to catch this black hole while it was devouring a star offers a remarkable opportunity to observe what otherwise would be invisible. Not only that, by analysing the flare, we were able to understand better this elusive category of black holes, which may well account for the majority of black holes in the centres of galaxies,” says the co-author Ann Zabludoff, an astronomy professor at the University of Arizona.

Scientifically speaking, such a violent act is called a ‘tidal disruption event’, where a black hole gobbles an unlucky star that ventures too close. The black hole’s gravitational forces create intense tides that break the star apart into a stream of gas, resulting in tremendous amounts of energy release that even outshines the entire galaxy in some cases. Such events emit bright x-rays, and scientists were fortunate enough to monitor one such cosmic party closely, leaving them with some fresh perspectives.

The team studied x-ray emitted from the volatile cosmic event dubbed as J2150. Through this, scientists were able to make the first measurements of both the black hole’s mass and its spin.

Mass and spin of the black hole

When a star ventures too close to a black hole, gravitational forces create intense tides that break the star apart into a stream of gas, resulting in a cataclysmic phenomenon known as a tidal disruption event. Tremendous amounts of energy are released, causing a tidal disruption to outshine its galaxy in some cases. ( NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith (USRA/GESTAR))

A depiction of a tidal disruption event

(NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith USRA/GESTAR))

While observations confirmed that the x-rays were released when an intermediate-mass black hole gobbled the star, follow-up calculations revealed that this type of black hole is likely to have a low mass of roughly 10,000 times more than that of the Sun. The team used information from x-ray data and compared it with other theoretical models.

Another interesting finding was the spin of the intermediate size black hole. Surprisingly, scientists found that the spin was very fast—vital information to understand how the black holes grow. They believe that the intermediate-mass black holes pave the way to the supermassive ones—which could be one of the reasons for the massive size of black holes.

On the other hand, the spin also helps understand the dark matter surrounding the black holes. Dark matter is one of the biggest enigmas as it is believed to hold most of the matter in this universe. They consist of particles, which none of the Earth-based experiments or equipment has been able to detect.

One of the study’s co-authors Nicholas Stone explains: “If those particles exist and have masses in a certain range, they will prevent an intermediate-mass black hole from having a fast spin. Yet J2150’s black hole is spinning fast. So, our spin measurement rules out a broad class of ultralight boson theories, showcasing the value of black holes as extraterrestrial laboratories for particle physics.”

The team said that further observations are required to fill the gap in understanding the black holes and their associated phenomenons.

The results of this study were published in The Astrophysical Journal last month and can be accessed here.


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