Science

UC Santa Cruz researchers witness a black hole devouring a star

UC Santa Cruz researchers witness a black hole devouring a star

One of many fascinating objects in space became even more compelling and mysterious.

An international team led by researchers at University of California, Santa CruzThe Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen and Washington State University witnessed a black hole devouring a lone star, “slicing” it apart, causing a clear, bright flare, UC Santa Cruz on Nov. 10 Media Release he said.

The brutal feast, or “tidal disruption event,” was recorded in a dwarf galaxy 850 million light-years away. The young supernova experiment (YSE), research that tracks cosmic explosions and “astrophysical transients”: extreme, destructive events in the dark corners of space.

In a press release, university staff laid it out in simpler terms, explaining that “an intermediate-mass black hole lurking undetected in a dwarf galaxy revealed itself to astronomers when it swallowed an unlucky star that strayed too close.” Black holes are so hard to detect, telescopes that capture X-rays or light can’t even pick them up, according to NASA. However, pictures taken for the first time in 2019 shows that they look like dark objects surrounded by hot, glowing matter.



“We are in what I call the era of celestial cinema,” said Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, a UC Santa Cruz professor who studies the “violent universe,” in a phone call to SFGATE. Although YSE has helped record hundreds, if not thousands, of supernovae, he said, bumping into a medium-sized black hole consuming a star was a pleasant surprise.

“We haven’t really found a lot of these lower-mass black holes, these elusive intermediate-mass black holes,” he said.

“This was something we didn’t expect,” laughed Ramirez-Ruiz.

A depiction of an unlucky star stumbling into the path of a black hole.

University of California Santa Cruz/Lick Observatory

These “exciting and unusual” disruption events are rare, he added. Researchers would need to survey 100,000 galaxies to see just one a year. However, their discovery is significant because it could shed light on some of astronomy’s most pressing questions — namely, how supermassive black holes at the center of large galaxies are made, Ramirez-Ruiz said. Even our own Milky Way galaxy has one of these savages at its core, he says NASA.

Indeed, 2022 has been quite the year for black holes.

In June, researchers at UC Berkeley collected potential evidence of a “free-floating” ghost-like black hole wandering in space. Considered “one of the most exotic phenomena in astrophysics,” these objects have rightly won the hearts of researchers across California.

Ramirez-Ruiz says YSE will continue to monitor galaxies for more cosmic events.



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