They caught a supermassive black hole engulfing a star

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Astronomers have captured the moment as a supermassive black hole absorbs a Sun-sized star. Images of this process were released in unprecedented detail by scientists on Monday, the AFP news agency reports.

The radiation from the process – known as tidal disruption – that took place more than 215 million light-years from Earth has been observed by astronomers through telescopes at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile.

Sounds like science fiction

Scientists have been able to record the physical rupture of the star and its entrainment into the gigantic “esophagus” of the black hole. “It sounds like science fiction, but it’s exactly what happens during a tidal disruption,” said study lead author Matt Nicholl.

When a star gets too close to a supermassive black hole, it is exposed to its enormous attractive force. “If these forces exceed the cohesive force of a star, it will lose its parts, which are absorbed by the black hole,” Stéphane Basa of the Astrophysics Laboratory in Marseille (LAM) explained to AFP.

Half of the star remains

“This extraordinary influx of matter produces intense electromagnetic emissions that last for several months,” Basa added, adding that only about half of the star would remain after the process.

The trio of scientists – Roger Penrose from Britain, Reinhard Genzel from Germany and Andrea Ghez from the USA – last week won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their research into black holes. The relevant commission called the phenomenon “one of the most exotic” in the universe.

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