Representation of a star being “spaghetti” by a black hole. (Credit: M. Kornmesser/ESO).

The Hubble Space Telescope has just discovered a hungry black hole while twisting an unfortunate star. Black holes violently trap everything within their reach, causing intense flashes of light, until whatever crosses the event horizon is hidden forever.

Recently, astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured in detail the moment when an unlucky star was engulfed by a black hole, located 300 million light-years away in the heart of the galaxy ESO 583- G004. The last moments of life of a star that got too close and was pulled in by the strong gravitational force of the black hole.

Contrary to popular belief, holes do not work like vacuum cleaners that suck up everything in their path, but simply eat what they can attract; that is, black holes will only swallow objects that come close enough for their gravitational force to end up tearing them violently. When matter is attracted to the black hole, not all of it ends beyond the event horizon (the limit that separates the black hole from the rest of the universe), but much of it is expelled at full speed, releasing a large amount of radiation that can be captured for the observatories.

The tidal event, officially identified as AT2022dsb, describes the violent final scenario of a star being pulled to the bottom of a black hole which are themselves known as “tidal waves.” Astronomers call black holes “gatherers, not hunters,” as well as messy eaters. It’s more complex behavior than it sounds, and Hubble is being used to learn more about the complex endgame of a star being torn apart as it plunges into the gravity well.

The legendary Hubble has a powerful gaze, but he still can’t photograph the chaos wreaked by the AT2022dsb tidal event up close, as the shredded star is nearly 300 million light-years away. However, using Hubble’s ultraviolet sensitivity, astronomers can study the shredded starlight, which includes hydrogen, carbon, and more.

This illustration shows how a black hole can devour a deflecting star. 1) A normal star passes close to a supermassive black hole in the center of a galaxy. 2) The outer gases of the star are attracted towards the gravitational field of the black hole. 3) The star disintegrates due to tidal forces. 4) Stellar debris is drawn into a ring around the black hole and ends up falling into it, releasing an enormous amount of light and high-energy radiation. (Credits: NASA, ESA, Leah Hustak (STScI)).

It is not the first time that an event of this type has been captured, in fact, there are at least a hundred detections of tidal disturbances around black holes using various telescopes. “However, there are still very few tidal events that are observed in ultraviolet light given the observation time. This is really unfortunate because there is a lot of information that can be gleaned from ultraviolet spectra,” Emily Engelthaler of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“We are excited that we can get these details about what the debris is doing. The tidal event can tell us a lot about a black hole.” Changes in the status of the doomed star are occurring on the order of days or months.

As NASA collaborators explain, this stellar event AT2022dsb was captured for the first time on March 1, 2022 by the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS-SN or “Killer”), a network of ground-based telescopes that probes the extragalactic sky about once a week in search of violent, variable, and transient events that are shaping our universe. Because this energetic collision occurred close enough to Earth and bright enough that astronomers were able to perform ultraviolet spectroscopy using Hubble, luckily the brightness was so intense that tracking was possible longer than expected.

The findings were presented at the 241st meeting of the American Astronomical Society, held in Seattle, Washington.

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