Death by spaghettification: Scientists record last moments of star devoured by black hole


Research News


A rare blast of light, emitted by a star as it is sucked in by a supermassive black hole, has been spotted by scientists using telescopes from around the world.

The phenomenon, known as a tidal disruption event, is the closest flare of its kind yet recorded, occurring just 215 million light-years from Earth. It is caused when a star passes too close to a black hole and the extreme gravitational pull from the black hole shreds the star into thin streams of material – a process called ‘spaghettification’. During this process some of the material falls into the black hole, releasing a bright flare of energy which astronomers can detect.

Tidal disruption events are rare and not always easy to study because they are usually obscured by a curtain of dust and debris. An international team of scientists led by the University of Birmingham were able to study this event in unprecedented detail because it was detected just a short time after the star was ripped apart.

Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope and New Technology Telescope, the Las Cumbres Observatory global telescope network, and the Neil Gehrel’s Swift Satellite, the team was able to monitor the flare, named AT2019qiz, over a six-month period as it grew brighter and then faded away.

The study’s findings are published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. This was supported and funded in part by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

“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,” says lead author Dr Matt Nicholl, a lecturer and Royal Astronomical Society research fellow at the University of Birmingham. “We were able to investigate in detail what happens when a star is eaten by such a monster.”

“When a black hole devours a star, it can launch a powerful blast of material outwards that obstructs our view,” explains Samantha Oates, also at the University of Birmingham. “This happens because the energy released as the black hole eats up stellar material propels the star’s debris outwards.”

In the case of AT2019qiz, astronomers were able to identify the phenomenon early enough to observe the whole process.

“Several sky surveys discovered emission from the new tidal disruption event very quickly after the star was ripped apart,” says Thomas Wevers, an ESO Fellow in Santiago, Chile, who was at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, UK, when he conducted the work. “We immediately pointed a suite of ground-based and space telescopes in that direction to see how the light was produced.”

The prompt and extensive observations in ultraviolet, optical, X-ray and radio light revealed, for the first time, a direct connection between the material flowing out from the star and the bright flare emitted as it is devoured by the black hole.

“The observations showed that the star had roughly the same mass as our own Sun, and that it lost about half of that to the black hole, which is over a million times more massive,” said Nicholl, who is also a visiting researcher at the University of Edinburgh.

“Because we caught it early, we could actually see the curtain of dust and debris being drawn up as the black hole launched a powerful outflow of material with velocities up to 10 000 km/s,” said Kate Alexander, NASA Einstein Fellow at Northwestern University in the US. “This unique ‘peek behind the curtain’ provided the first opportunity to pinpoint the origin of the obscuring material and follow in real time how it engulfs the black hole.”

The research helps astronomers better understand supermassive black holes and how matter behaves in the extreme gravity environments around them. The team say AT2019qiz could even act as a ‘Rosetta stone’ for interpreting future observations of tidal disruption events. ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), planned to start operating this decade, will enable researchers to detect increasingly fainter and faster evolving tidal disruption events, to solve further mysteries of black hole physics.


From EurekAlert!

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October 13, 2020 2:34 am

“The idea of a black hole ‘sucking in’ a nearby star sounds like science fiction …..”
Most likely it is.

Carl Friis-Hansen
Reply to  Vuk
October 13, 2020 3:03 am

Vuk, why would you think it is science fiction when:

“We were able to investigate in detail what happens when a star is eaten by such a monster.”

It was an observation, not a computer model. 🙂

Reply to  Carl Friis-Hansen
October 13, 2020 3:47 am

It is an observation of computer models.
From the paper: “The free parameters in our model are stellar mass, metallicity, the current star-formation rate and the widths of five equal-mass bins for the star-formation history, and three parameters controlling the dust fraction and reprocessing (see Leja et al. 2017 for details). Leja et al. (2017) identify important degeneracies between age–metallicity–dust, and the dust mass–dust attenuation curve. PROSPECTOR is specifically designed to account for such degeneracies in parameter estimation using Markov chain Monte Carlo analysis to fully explore the posterior probability density. van Velzen et al. (2020) also used PROSPECTOR to model this galaxy (but only the PanSTARRS data); the mass and metallicity we find using the full SED are consistent with their results, within the uncertainties. A difference in our modelling is that we allow for a non-parametric star-formation history to better understand the age of the system.”
The free parameters of the model, as defined by Mockler et al. (2019), are the masses of the black hole, M•, and star, M*; the scaled impact parameter b; the efficiency ϵ of converting accreted mass to energy; the normalization and power-law index, Rph, 0 and lph, connecting the radius to the instantaneous luminosity; the viscous delay time Tν (the time taken for matter to circularize and/or move through the accretion disc) which acts approximately as a low pass filter on the light curve; the time of first fallback, t0; the extinction, proportional to the hydrogen column density nH in the host galaxy; and a white noise parameter, σ. ”

von Neumann : “With four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.”

Reply to  Vuk
October 13, 2020 11:24 am

sounds like you could do with being stuffed into the total perspective vortex!

Reply to  Carl Friis-Hansen
October 13, 2020 4:00 am

Its a conjecture of an excessively heavily filtered-to-model collection of anecdotal data collected through data-bit-by-data-bit cherrypicking of ONLY the information that fit their cockamamie theory.

Remember back when they “discovered the black hole at the center of the Milky Way” and then 12 years later found out the center of the galaxy was 30° in another direction?

No? Stop cherry picking your inputs with a filter then.

Charles Higley(@higley7)
Reply to  Vuk
October 13, 2020 8:46 am

Actually the idea of a blackhole was dismissed by Einstein, Oppenheimer, and most recently NASA. Simple physics indicated it cannot exist as it would have to form. There are 7 to 9 models for blackholes because none of them work with the known Universe.

But, blackhole seekers dismiss that dismissal and go seeking blackholes anyhow. In this case, the mathematics was tortured to create extreme conditions without actually recognizing that the real Universe has limits to things and NOT mathematical infinity results. Instead of letting the universe limit the mathematics, they let the mathematics rule/extrapolate the Universe, without considering the unleashed fantasies of mathematics. The same applies to other size blackholes, they fail during formation, so you cannot have them.

Gravity was created as a fourth force years ago, but the idea that it might be a residual effect of electromagnetism, at one part in 10^34, has never been disproven. We have created small volumes with huge magnetic fields that render frogs weightless, hmmm.

We know very well the effects of London or van der Waals Dispersion Forces at the molecular level, even between electrically neutral molecules. We also know that the life-giving biological bilayer membrane exits due to this weak interaction.

So, why could not gravity be a residual effect of Dispersion Forces. It is impossible to have matter with mass, composed of quarks and electrons, that is not proportionately carrying charge. Yet, this massive charge is completely dismissed as being neutral throughout the Universe, while we KNOW that the interactions occur significantly at the molecular level.

Astronomers and NASA have begun to recognize and map huge electrical current flows in the solar system, between at stars, and between galaxies, with intergalactic space being loaded with atomic plasma. The reason for inventing the undetectable bogeyman in the closet, Dark Matter, was to explain the fact that there is not enough detectable matter to hold a galaxy together. Dark Matter has a gravitational effect but is undetectable in all ways. Really. Then, to be consistent, they invented Dark Force and Dark Energy, an entire undetectable Dark Physics—more funding please; talk about job security.

To the contrary, if it is recognized that the supermassive blackholes at the center of galaxies are actually nexi of electromagnetism, there is plenty of force available to manage any size galaxy.

Occam’s razor has been abandoned in this case, with the Big Bang and Dark Physics being adopted wholesale without ever showing that electromagnetism is not a major or the only player in the Universe.

Paul Penrose
Reply to  Charles Higley
October 13, 2020 10:44 am

I would like to point out that Roger Penrose just received the Nobel prize in Physics (along with two co-authors) for proving mathematically that if Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is correct, black holes must exist. I’m sure there’s a Nobel in there for you (or anybody else) that can prove black holes are impossible (or that the Special Theory of Relativity is wrong). Knock yourself out.

Reply to  Paul Penrose
October 13, 2020 3:04 pm

Sir Roger Penrose mathematically showed that black holes could (or can) exist
comment image
but that doesn’t mean they do.
Hawking radiation (black hole evaporation) is thought to be a tentative confirmation that there might be something there, based on hypothesis that the quantum vacuum fluctuations are converted into pairs of particles, one falling beyond ‘event horizon’ (can not be detected) and the other one escapes into infinity, never to be seen again. A very odd hypothesis, but so is the whole business of black hole ‘science’.
‘Beauty’ of the Hawking radiation is that the maximum energy flux calculated that a black hole might emit is order of 10^ (-29) W. To appreciate how small is that, have in mind that one red-light photon at a wavelength of 700 nm has 3 x 10 (-19) J, where 1 J =0.0003Wh, or to put it simply there is no way that the Hawking radiation could be ever instrumentally observed.
All this business of black holes swallowing part of universe or gobbling each other is within the ‘event horizon’ of science fiction.
It is worth noting that Hannes Olof Alfvén, plasma physicist, was winner of the 1970 Nobel prize. He believed that the Big Bang is a myth invented by astrophysicists trying to back extrapolate the origin of the universe using abstract mathematical calculations, which necessarily are not reflected in reality.
Ergo: Alfvén was either wrong despite receiving a Nobel prize, or alternatively he was correct, thus both Big Bang and the black holes mathematics is just that abstract mathematics and not mush more.

Gary Pearse
Reply to  Charles Higley
October 13, 2020 7:15 pm

Charles an excellent comment. My daughter is a physicist and did post Doc at JPL and Scripps. I argued something similar to your suggestion of a residual of Van der Waal’s forces for gravity with her many years ago.

She directed me to one of her professors who was a theoretical physicist. My departure (the same as everyone else’s I’m sure) was that the fundamental forces all emanate from the same mass of any given object and probably are all related and not divided as we define them (Is there not really just one force in one force field). Gravity is so relatively weak that it can be ‘ignored’ at the atomic scale -which it is.

The earth has an average specific gravity of 5.5g/cc and a mass of 6×10^24 Kg. I imagined it made of germanium which has the same S.G. and held together by Van der Waals forces, which as a first approximation would be moderately greater than the tensile strength of germanium. I imagined the earth pulled into two halves and held a small fraction of a millimeter apart now attracted back together by Van der Walls force which is necessarily stronger than it has to be merely to pull the halves together again. This excess force we could identify as gravity. The residual force is logically necessary because the earth attracts other objects to it, both a new additional object and the earth exercise this available residual force.

It would seem amenable to experimentation.

Rich Davis
October 13, 2020 3:00 am

EurekAlert! hope you won’t read the caption that reveals that this is an artist’s concept, not a photograph.

It’s not that I have a objection to the theory of black holes, but the fact that we keep seeing this tactic that makes me question why they can’t stick to the actual facts. Why are they trying to establish belief in black holes? I feel like we’re being shown illustrations of angels dancing on the head of a pin, presented as evidence for angels.

Reply to  Rich Davis
October 13, 2020 3:34 am


October 13, 2020 3:38 am

“Just” 215 million light years away?

Rich Davis
Reply to  Buckeyebob
October 13, 2020 4:04 am

Yup, they have two pixels and they were able to turn that into a clear visualization. You can see it with your own eyes, why do you doubt it?

Reply to  Rich Davis
October 13, 2020 5:10 am

That one more than a tree in climate science 🙂

Reply to  Rich Davis
October 13, 2020 8:25 am

Sure, why not. They are able to reconstruct… construct a whole animal from a single tooth, then through the scientific magic of an artists’ conception, present it in an undeniable exhibit in our societies’ top cultural institutions and venues. Pattern matching, and the assumptions/assertions of signal fidelity that launched their evolution.

Peta of Newark
October 13, 2020 3:53 am

“saggetticayshun” is the complete cr4p I’ve read 4 a long time.

S’getti is ‘all tangled up (after cooking) OR in straight linear bits before cooking.
Somehow, Black Holes are neither of those things
Again tho, the Human Animal cannot pass off untruth. These guys patently eat lots of the stuff and being carbohydrate lends its consumer= obesity, laziness, braindead, buck passing, attention seeking, prone 2 wild exaggeration and chronic depression

Matter cannot fall into a BH – it has to attain Light Speed, by definition, as it crosses the Event Horizon (EH) Matter in whatever form requires infinite amount of energy to get to such speed and will be infinitely heavy when it does so in able to get across the EH

Thus all matter falling in has to be converted to energy before it ‘falls in’ – because obviously light *can* travel at Light Speed. Rocket Science it ain’t

But surely, *just* as in the Global Warming Gag Gas Theery, as much energy will ‘fall out’ (go upwards) as falls in.

If an entire star is converted to energy, via E= MC^2, to say you’re gonna get a “Blast Of Light’ has *got* to be The Understatement of All Time

Thomas Burk
Reply to  Peta of Newark
October 13, 2020 8:59 am

My understanding is that the speed of light escape velocity applies to exiting a black hole, not entering. “ Rotation can also make black holes more effective at converting any matter that falls into them into energy. A nonrotating black hole would convert about 5.7 percent of an infalling object’s mass into energy, following Einstein’s famous equation E = mc^2. In contrast, a rotating black hole could convert up to 42 percent of an object’s mass into energy, scientists have determined.” So, no, not all mass has to be converted to energy before entering.

Ken Irwin
October 13, 2020 4:36 am

Years ago when Woody Allen was a standup comedian he quipped “While on honeymoon in the Grand Canyon my wife lost a shoe in the mud at the bottom…..
Years later a team of archeologists dug it up ….. and from it they reconstructed a Dinosaur.”

Still fascinating conjecture nonetheless.

October 13, 2020 5:45 am

You cant say “black hole” any more…
it’s ‘a hole of colour’ !! or you will upset the snowflakes …
bugger, cant say snowflakes any more;… it’s a ‘fluffy cold thing of little substance full of air & evaporates in the heat’

Reply to  saveenergy
October 13, 2020 6:47 am

Black is not a colour it is absence of any colour!
… hence it is colourless hole.

Reply to  Vuk
October 13, 2020 11:26 am

“Black, black, black . . . is the color of my love’s true hair.” –Smothers Brothers

Reply to  jorgekafkazar
October 14, 2020 12:06 am

‘Black! Black! You lock me in the cellar and feed me pins!’ – The Nice Painter from the Fast Show.

Reply to  saveenergy
October 13, 2020 8:30 am

And before that it was a colored hole. See “ORATION IN MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN, delivered at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln”.

That said, according to the NAACP, it’s not a “black hole”, but rather a “black whore”, and payments will be extracted through a diversity (i.e. color judgment) racket.

Just Jenn
October 13, 2020 6:00 am

So…….this star is 215 million years old?

They make it sound like they were witnessing it in “real time”.

The illustration is cool, but it’s an artist’s rendition–so how accurate is it? Dunno. Unless we develop a time machine and go to a safe observation zone, we’ll never really know.

I love Astronomy, it’s so very cool. But what I don’t love is this “certainty” that seems to be prevalent, you are talking vast distances we can’t really comprehend and very narrow observation fields, so to be “certain” is not accurate nor is it a representation–certainty in science is a BIG word and one that most won’t say in any given discovery.

Rich Davis
Reply to  Just Jenn
October 13, 2020 7:49 am

This supposed event happened 215 million years ago in a galaxy far, far away. (Ok, about 4 times as far from earth as the diameter of the Milky Way, or roughly 2,034,000,000,000,000,000,000 km away).

The star itself was probably billions of years old at that time, and allegedly is no more.

Or based on another plausible hypothesis, some kid named Billy shined a laser pointer at their instrument.

Jackie Pratt
Reply to  Rich Davis
October 13, 2020 12:48 pm

Rich isn’t the milky way about 200K ly in diameter? That would make the distance multiplier about 800 times, right?

Rich Davis
Reply to  Jackie Pratt
October 13, 2020 6:22 pm

I don’t know where I got that number for the distance across the Milky Way. I think you’re correct that the right number is about 200 KLY and that would mean that 215 MLY is about 1,075 times further away than the other side of the galaxy.

215 MLY is still 2.034e21 km though.

Thanks for the correction.

Lance Wallace
October 13, 2020 7:06 am

Read Kip Thorne on black holes. Mark, learn, and inwardly digest.

Reply to  Lance Wallace
October 13, 2020 7:53 am

Pure fantasy

October 13, 2020 8:00 am



Mark - Helsinki
October 13, 2020 10:28 am

“we cant see what it happening” “We cant see the star being consumed nor the black hole, and we can’t really tell you anything about what is happening in the physical world, but muh theory”

“so what if we have almost no data to go on over a infinitesimally small cosmological time frame”

“But we’re sure there is a black hole there and we’re sure it’s consuming a star”

Mike McMillan
October 13, 2020 12:25 pm

Run this full screen.

Rich Davis
Reply to  Mike McMillan
October 13, 2020 6:30 pm

More virtual reality, isn’t it?

Gary Pearse
October 13, 2020 4:57 pm

All of a sudden we are ‘witnessing’ all manner of stellar gymnastics coincident with the great dumbing down taking place in academia, along with replacing reality with modelled ‘virtual’ reality. This is why they show artists’ renditions instead of real images because there are no real images. It’s no surprise that CAGW would be attractive to astronomers who, by the nature and scope of their science, have to be content with huge conjectural components shrouding sketchy data to underpin their theories and ‘findings’.

We have a couple of generations of Global Warming scientists who do virtual investigations with virtual models of their biases and then breathlessly report: “WE SHOW for the first time blah blah blah which is worse than was previously thought so we must destroy the world’s economy and keep close tabs on humans even more than we thought.” Nevermind that what was previously thought was settled science that is supposed to be beyond debate. Calling results ‘robust’ is a pleading to try to put some armor on ‘findings’ that may not even have a real phenomenon to lean against.

Bryan A
Reply to  Gary Pearse
October 13, 2020 6:38 pm

One thing models appear to have gotten correct, imagery from the Event Horizon Telescope project
Vs modeled
comment image

Thomas Edwardson
Reply to  Bryan A
October 16, 2020 8:07 am

Ah, no. Not even close.

Neither of those links are to actual images. The “image” that was released was derived from the “best” munging of the telescope data that actually fit their model of a black hole.

If you want to get an idea of what they have done, then you should read “First M87 Event Horizon Telescope Results. IV. Imaging the Central Supermassive Black hole … … at the The Astrophysical Journal Letters, where they describe how they used eight multi-element radio telescopes at six sites spread around the earth on four observing days generating 100’s of terabytes of data per day per telescope, and then used several super computers to extract a modeled image from the collected petabytes of data.

The focus tracks of those telescope sites through the image area are shown here …comment image … which is clearly a small sampling.

I would argue that this set of images derived from the same Event Horizon Telescope data …comment image … looks just like this actual image of Supernova 1987A from the Hubble Telescope … … which in more reasonable theories of astrophysics that replace black holes, dark matter, dark energy, redshift=distance, and the big bang with electricity in the form of Birkeland currents flowing through plasma on cosmic scales through a z-pinch can form rings of pearls in a plasma discharge, and can actually be reproduced in the small scale in a laboratory apparatus.

What the EHT researches have really done is they applied differing imaging algorithms to this enormous data set and compared the resulting images to an artist’s rendition of their theory of black holes, and declared the winner of the match as an actual image of a black hole. Well, my theory is that M87 must look like one of the former presidents of the United States. And when I squint hard at the EHT image, I think it most closely matches the official portrait of James Buchanan. But don’t take my word for it. Look for yourself … They have in principal done the same thing.

Gary Pearse
October 13, 2020 9:08 pm

Bryan, there are two poker player ‘tells’ in this short report that should prevent you from going “all-in”.

1) When you name your prospective project “The Event Horizon Project” you know they are not going to report Oh jeepers, we couldn’t find a black hole after all. That will never happen!

2) When you congratulate Einstein for this ‘successful finding’, you are attempting to pre-empt the very natural doubt raised as well as seeming to have the great one’s authority.

Climateers do this all the time. They call their Faculties Bureaus Institutes and personal titles something in the vein of “Man-Made Climate Disaster Mitigation Research Group” “Professor of Climate Risk Economic Studies”….. So far, nothing bad has happened.

James F. Evans
October 15, 2020 10:42 am

The cat’s out of the bag.

Astronomers can’t defend their work to reasonable skeptics.

Only true believers buy their fantasies.

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