A team of 13 astronomers from the US, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Australia reported sharing the experience of watching a black hole devour a star this Thanksgiving weekend. The event was actually witnessed via ground –based telescopes that used radio, x-ray and optical data over the course of several months. The star (roughly the size of our own sun) was first observed dropping from its trajectory into the gravitational field of the black hole by a team of researchers from Ohio State University last December.
While it has been long-known that black holes are “voracious eaters,” that shred and consume celestial objects that wander into their gravitational path, this was the first time scientists were able to witness the devastation as it occurred, rather than the results after the fact, according to study leader Sjoert van Velzen, a Hubble fellow at Johns Hopkins University
“It’s the first time we saw 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,” he explained in a report published November 26 by the journal Science. “Previous efforts to find evidence for these jets, including my own, were late to the game.”
The main reason is the fact that black holes are extremely hard to study because they can’t actually be seen see them since their gravitational pull is so powerful that not even light can escape. In fact, the only way astronomers can investigate black holes is by studying their effect on the space around them, including what they consume and what they emit.
According to van Velzen, when a star is being “eaten” stream of material and plasma shoot flares from the black hole’s poles. Although the actual cause has yet to be discovered, one theory is that they are the result the materials being “super-heated and ejected along the black hole’s spin axis, confined to a narrow, conical jet by strong magnetic fields” as they fall into the void.