All About Space

Star is seen being shredded by ‘spaghettif­ication’

- Words by Elizabeth Howell

Telescopes have captured the rare light flash from a dying star as it was ripped apart by a supermassi­ve black hole. This rarely seen ‘tidal disruption event’ – which creates spaghettif­ication in stars as they stretch and stretch – is the closest such known event to happen at only 215 million light years from Earth. One light year is the distance light travels in a year, equating to about 10 trillion kilometres (6 trillion miles). “The idea of a black hole ‘sucking in’ a nearby star sounds like science fiction. But this is exactly what happens in a tidal disruption event,” said Matt Nicholl, a lecturer and Royal Astronomic­al Society research fellow at the University of Birmingham, UK. Researcher­s caught the event in action using numerous telescopes, including the European Southern Observator­y’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) and New Technology Telescope.

It has been difficult to see these events in the past because the black hole eating up the star has a tendency to shoot out material from the dying star, such as dust, that obscures the view. Luckily the newly studied event was studied shortly after the star was ripped to shreds.

Researcher­s studied the event, known as AT 2019qiz, over six months as the flare became bright and then faded away. Observatio­ns took place in ultraviole­t, optical, X-ray and radio wavelength­s. Looking at the event in this comprehens­ive way showed how the material leaves the star and the flare the star sends as its dying gasp.

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