Using multiple light spectrums, including ultraviolet, X-ray, and radio, astronomers watched a star 215 million light-years away be pulled apart by a black hole's massive gravity in a process called "spaghettification." This extreme gravity created tidal forces on the star – similar to how Earth's moon pushes and pulls the oceans – stretching it and compressing it into strips that looked like long stands of pasta.
"The idea of a black hole 'sucking in' a nearby star sounds like science fiction," said Dr. Matt Nicholl, lead author of the paper and fellow at the University of Birmingham. "But this is exactly what happens in a tidal disruption event. We were able to investigate in detail what happens when a star is eaten by such a monster."
Scientists used observatories in California and Chile, along with a NASA satellite, to observe the process over six months. During this period, the star grew brighter as it was torn apart before fading entirely. This was the first time a direct connection was observed between the fading of a star and the bright flash it emitted as it died at the hands of a black hole.
"When a black hole devours a star, it can launch a powerful blast of material outwards that obstructs our view," said Samantha Oates from the University of Birmingham. "This happens because the energy released as the black hole eats up stellar material propels the star's debris outwards."
Researchers were able to get a good view of the entire process, which is not always possible due to the explosion of material from such an event.
"Because we caught it early, we could actually see the curtain of dust and debris being drawn up as the black hole launched a powerful outflow of material with velocities up to 10,000 km/s," said Kate Alexander of Northwestern University.
The star, roughly the size of Earth's sun, was dwarfed by the black hole, which was more than a million times larger in terms of mass. The event occurred near Rigel, the "foot" of the hunter constellation Orion in the night sky.