Astronomers have caught black holes in the act of murdering stars before. But a study published Thursday in Science claims to have caught a step in the crime that has remained elusive until now.
In addition to catching evidence of the star’s destruction — an inevitable death caused by the massive, inescapable gravitational pull of a dense supermassive black hole — the scientists saw a hot flare of matter escape from the scene of the crime.
You can basically think of it as a hot plasma burp.
The researchers say this is the first time anyone has successfully picked up the radio signal produced by this jet of escaping matter. These black hole jets have been seen before, but they’ve never been directly linked to a star being torn apart — and the phenomenon remains pretty mysterious.
“These events are extremely rare,” study author Sjoert van Velzen, a Hubble fellow at Johns Hopkins University, said in a statement. “It’s the first time we see everything from the stellar destruction followed by the launch of a conical outflow, also called a jet, and we watched it unfold over several months.”
The deceased star was quite similar to our own, but sat a staggering 300 million light years away. It was done in by the type of supermassive black hole thought to sit in the center of most galaxies — including our own.
Ohio State University scientists were the first to catch the murder in progress using an optical telescope, which they announced online in 2014. Along with researchers from the University of Oxford, van Velzen used different telescopes to gather optical, radio, and X-ray signals from the event as it unfolded. The researchers hope that they’ll be able to catch more black hole burps in progress, so they can figure out the exact mechanism behind the purge.
We still have a lot to learn about black holes. Luckily, NASA has dubbed Nov. 27 “Black Hole Friday” — so you can read up on all the latest black hole findings with just a few clicks.