Have you ever wanted to know what it looks like when a black hole eats a star? Well, look no further. Thanks to NASA’s incredible Hubble Space Telescope, there’s a video of a black hole doing exactly that.
On Jan. 12, 2023, NASA shared a video and images of a star being torn apart and devoured by a black hole. According to the space agency, an event like this only happens a few times every 100,000 years when there’s a dormant black hole in the center of a galaxy.
Can you explain what’s happening in this video and image as if I were five years old?
Sure thing! What you see in the images and video happens in the final few moments of the life of a star. Specifically, in this instance, a star called AT2022dsb that sadly came too close to a black hole. Womp womp!
“Black holes are gatherers, not hunters. They lie in wait until a hapless star wanders by,” NASA writes. “When the star gets close enough, the black hole's gravitational grasp violently rips it apart and sloppily devours its gasses while belching out intense radiation.”
Cool! Gross? When this happens, it’s called a “tidal disruption event.” Astronomers are learning so much more about how this happens thanks to Hubble’s ability to capture major details.
Scientists first caught a glimpse of this star being eaten up in March 2022 and were able to look capture the event with Hubble’s ultraviolet spectroscopy for a far longer duration than they would typically be able to.
"Typically, these events are hard to observe. You get maybe a few observations at the beginning of the disruption when it's really bright. Our program is different in that it is designed to look at a few tidal events over a year to see what happens," said Peter Maksym of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics at . "We saw this early enough that we could observe it at these very intense black hole accretion stages. We saw the accretion rate drop as it turned to a trickle over time."
So, what’s that donut thing in the video and image? That’s gas, the only thing left from the star that was swallowed up, and scientists are still gathering data from it to figure out exactly what’s going on.
"We really are still getting our heads around the event. You shred the star, and then it's got this material that's making its way into the black hole,” Marksym says. “And so you've got models where you think you know what is going on, and then you've got what you actually see. This is an exciting place for scientists to be: right at the interface of the known and the unknown."