Black hole snacks on a star similar to Sun, bite by bite

by The Technical Blogs


Black holes, the most powerful objects in the universe, have been observed to exhibit a rather peculiar behavior. Instead of devouring stars in one fell swoop, some black holes appear to prefer nibbling on them over time.

A team of researchers recently reported observing a supermassive black hole at the heart of a nearby galaxy, methodically consuming a star similar to our sun.

The black hole takes in material equivalent to thrice the mass of Earth each time the star orbits close to it. This phenomenon, known as a “repeating partial tidal disruption,” is akin to a cosmic snack rather than a full meal.

Black holes are incredibly dense objects with a gravitational pull so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape their clutches. The star being gradually consumed by the black hole is located approximately 520 million light years away from our solar system. A light year, the distance light travels in a year, is equivalent to 5.9 trillion miles or 9.5 trillion kilometers.

The black hole in question is relatively small for its kind, with an estimated mass only a few hundred thousand times larger than the sun.

Black hole

For comparison, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, Sagittarius A*, has about 4 million times the mass of our sun. Other galaxies harbor supermassive black holes hundreds of millions times the mass of the sun.

The environment around these central black holes can be among the most violent places in the universe. The star being slowly devoured by the black hole orbits it every 20 to 30 days. As it nears the black hole, some material from its stellar atmosphere is sucked away, but not enough to completely shred the star.

The stellar material falling into the black hole heats up to around 3.6 million degrees Fahrenheit (2 million degrees Celsius), releasing a massive amount of X-rays. These were detected by NASA’s orbiting Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory.

Astrophysicist Rob Eyles-Ferris of the University of Leicester in England, one of the study’s authors, predicts that the star’s orbit will gradually decay until it gets close enough to be completely disrupted by the black hole. This process could take years, if not decades or centuries.

This is the first time scientists have observed a sun-like star being repeatedly snacked upon by a supermassive black hole.

The discovery opens up new avenues for understanding tidal disruption events and the influence of a star’s orbit on them. As Eyles-Ferris notes, this rapidly evolving field promises more exciting discoveries in the future.

Edited By:

Sibu Kumar Tripathi

Published On:

Sep 11, 2023


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