Signal From Star Being Destroyed at Supermassive Black Hole's Event Horizon Captured

An artist's impression showing hot gas orbiting in a disk around a rapidly-spinning black hole

An artist's impression showing hot gas orbiting in a disk around a rapidly-spinning black

The black hole was a buzz saw, spinning fast enough to stretch the star into a rotating ring around the black hole's event horizon, the point beyond which not even light can escape.

Measurements taken through multiple telescopes show brief blips of X-ray energy being released, apparently just as debris from a disintegrating star circles the black hole's event horizon - the point just before complete oblivion. Some of the remains of the star are pulled into an X-ray-bright disk where they circle the black hole before passing over the "event horizon", the boundary beyond which nothing, including light, can escape.

Because MAXI had caught the black hole's initial outburst, the team began studying the X-rays emitted from the black hole over a month, measuring how they bounced off the accretion disk.

For the first time, scientists have observed a star being torn apart at the event horizon of a supermassive black hole-and have used the data to estimate how fast the black hole is spinning. After the X-ray burst captivated astronomers, researchers at MIT, the University of Maryland and NASA swung another instrument on board the station to watch what happened to the black hole, nicknamed J1820. The findings, published in Science, focus on a supermassive black hole located nearly 290 million light years away.

The crumbs left over from a supermassive black hole's recent meal have allowed scientists to calculate the monster's rotation rate, and the results are mind-boggling.

Mass for the black hole is about 1 million times the mass of the sun, and given the stable proximity of the signal to the black hole, the team has calculated that the black hole is spinning at a rate of at least 50% of the speed of light.

Pasham added that the supermassive black hole from their paper is exciting "because we think it's a poster child for tidal disruption flares".

But now astronomers think the streams of electromagnetic energy emitted by stars as they get sucked into nothingness might help.

Back when Earth's continents were mushed together into a single blob called Pangaea and reptiles were just beginning to overtake amphibians as the dominant life-forms on Earth, a star strayed too close to a black hole.

These tidal disruption flares are critical to understanding the nature, and spin, of black holes that are actively consuming stars. "With rapid spin the black hole's power is turned up even higher".

Researchers from the US and the Netherlands were looking at a "tidal disruption event" or TDE (the name for a star being destroyed by a black hole) that was detected in 2014.

So, how fast was the black hole spinning?

Black holes are some of the most interesting features of our universe, but they're also not very well understood. The event, he said, appears to match theoretical predictions. This pulse allows scientists to try to define certain properties of the black hole in question, such as its mass and spin.

An artist's conception of swirling matter around a black hole.

In that dangerously close orbit lies another star, thought to be a tiny, dense white dwarf. As the white dwarf came in contact with this hot stellar material, it likely dragged it along as a luminous overcoat of sorts, illuminating the white dwarf in an intense amount of X-rays each time it circled the black hole, every 131 seconds. The chances of detecting such a scenario would be exceedingly slim. "But at least in terms of the properties of the system, this scenario seems to work". It spins at about half the speed of light. Some star stuff whipped past the black hole and out into space.

"In the next decade, we hope to detect more of these events". The rotational forces of a gyrating black hole are powerful only in the immediate vicinity of the black hole and don't noticeably affect the surrounding galaxies.

This research was supported, in part, by NASA.

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