Astronomers have found a hungry black hole swallowing a star

An artists impression of a black hole consuming a star being torn apart by the black hole’s gravity. The black hole begins to launch a powerful jet detected with radio telescopes. Image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Swift.

A supermassive black hole has been recorded swallowing a star at the centre of a nearby galaxy.

The black hole was found to have faint jets of material shooting out from it and helps to confirm theories about the nature of black holes, according to a report in the journal Science.

Gemma Anderson, an astrophysicist from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), says a supermassive black hole swallowing a star is an extreme event in which the star gets ripped apart.

“It’s very unusual when a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy actually eats a star, we’ve probably only seen about 20 of them,” she says.

“Everything we know about black holes suggests we should see a jet when this happens but until now they’ve only been detected in a few of the most powerful systems. Now we’ve finally found one in a more normal event.”

An artist’s impression of a star being drawn toward a black hole and destroyed, triggering a jet of plasma. Image: Modified from an original image by Amadeo Bachar.

Dr Anderson began the research while working with the 4 PI SKY team at Oxford University but moved to Western Australia in September.

The discovery is the first time scientists have been able to see both a disk of material falling into a black hole, known as an accretion disk, and a jet in a system of this kind.

This is how big the jets are. The energy produced by the jets are about the same as the entire energy output of our Sun over 10 million years.

The black hole is 300 million light years away from us and the team, led by Dr Sjoert van Velzen from Johns Hopkins University in the US, were able to make their first observations only three weeks after it was found.

The event was first picked up by the All-sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN), which is pronounced “assassin” by astronomers, and followed up with the Arcminute Microkelvin Imager, a radio telescope, located near Cambridge.

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