What would happen if the sun was swallowed by a black hole?
Until now, astronomers could only theorise.
But after an exciting observation recently announced in the journal Science, an international team has witnessed first-hand the violent battle between a sun-like star and supermassive black hole — and its incredible aftermath.
What they observed is an important piece of a much larger puzzle concerning a powerful and perplexing phenomenon called cosmic jets, illustrated to the right. As you can see, rays of radiation are pictured flying out the north and south ends of a black hole.
An unexpected discovery
Tucked away in a nearby galaxy 300 million light years from Earth is a supermassive black hole, the largest kind of black hole that exists in the universe.
Last December, an unlikely group was the first to discover it. It was an Ohio State-led team looking for a powerful type of explosion that occurs when a massive star dies, called a supernova, using the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae.
By scanning the sky for powerful, sudden bursts of bright radiation — indicative of supernovae — they came across a rare event: The supermassive black hole was in the process of ripping apart a star similar in size to our sun. The supermassive black hole has a mass of about 1 million times our sun.
The reason the team had come across it in the first place was because the star’s gas was accumulating into a flat disc around the black hole, called an accretion disc, which shines extremely bright, as shown below:
As the star’s gas moves closer to the black hole, it also moves faster and, therefore, heats up, emitting bright bursts of radiation, not entirely different from a supernova.
Spotting black hole jets
The researchers announced their discovery on Twitter, which attracted the attention of Johns Hopkins postdoctoral fellow Sjoert van Velzen.
Together with a separate international team, van Velzen quickly turned multiple telescopes toward the supermassive black hole with anticipation.
Within a few weeks, van Velzen and the team spotted what they were looking for: A colossal burst of radiation from the black hole called a jet (shown forming below), which the team estimated through theoretical models to be travelling at nearly the speed of light.
It was the fastest anyone had ever followed up to witness the jet, van Velzen told Business Insider in an email.
International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research astrophysicist and co-author of the paper James Miller-Jones compared the power of the jet to the total energy our sun would generate over 10 million years.
This wasn’t the first jet ever observed, but it was the first time that astronomers had seen one emerge shortly after a black hole’s meal. The discovery confirmed a long-standing theory that black holes would emit jets after gobbling up a star.
“How astrophysical jets are produced remains an open question,” van Velzen told Business Insider. “There are several competing ideas, but nobody has written down a fully consistent theory that can explain all observations of jets. That’s what makes them so interesting!”
Since van Velzen first observed the jet, it has slowed down. The next step will be to build a theoretical model that can explain this and continue studying the black hole in more detail to “nail down the parameters of our model.”
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