The extreme warping of spacetime caused by the black hole's intense gravity creates powerful tides that will rip any stars and planets to shreds, but only before spaghettifying them into oblivion. Generally, though, if a star gets turned into Silly Putty by a black hole's tides, the suffering is a short-lived and explosive affair, where some of the star stuff gets consumed and the rest is ejected back out into space.
For one unfortunate star, however, a massive black hole has been seen mauling its stellar entrails for a decade — ten times longer than it usually takes for a black hole to finish a star meal — possibly revealing how the biggest black holes grew to be so massive.
"We have witnessed a star's spectacular and prolonged demise," said Dacheng Lin from the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire. "Dozens of tidal disruption events have been detected since the 1990s, but none that remained bright for nearly as long as this one."
By combining the observational power of three space telescopes — NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and Swift satellite, plus the European XMM-Newton — the drama has been seen unfolding in the center of a galaxy around 1.8 billion light-years away. Generating powerful X-rays, the tidal disruption event (TDE) — called XJ1500+0154 — has been telling astronomers the violent story of what happens when a star, roughly twice the mass of our sun, gets consumed by a supermassive black hole.
The event was first spotted by XMM-Newton July 23rd, 2005, and it reached peak brightness in a Chandra observation on June 5, 2008. Since then, the dimming X-ray emissions have been observed multiple times over the years, revealing a fascinating insight to how the most massive black holes consume matter and, perhaps, how they so quickly gained mass in the early universe.
By measuring the X-ray emissions, astronomers have been able to gauge how efficiently the black hole has been able to consume the blended stellar material collecting in the black hole's accretion disk. In this case, it appears the stellar material from this TDE is still being consumed and models suggest X-ray emissions from this particular event will continue to dim over the next few years.
"This event shows that black holes really can grow at extraordinarily high rates," said Stefanie Komossa of QianNan Normal University for Nationalities in Duyun City, China. "This may help understand how precocious black holes came to be."
Read more at Discovery News