A video has been released by Nasa showing how a star would be torn apart if it entered a black hole. The animation, produced by Nasa Goddard, illustrates that when a star enters close proximity to a black hole, intense tidal forces rip the star apart. In these events, called "tidal disruptions", some of the stellar debris is flung outward at high speed while the rest falls into the black hole. This causes a distinct X-ray flare that can last for a few years.
The animation comes from the findings of a trio of orbiting X-ray telescopes, Nasa's Chandra X-ray Observatory, Swift Gamma-ray Burst Explorer, and Esa/Nasa's XMM-Newton, which collected different pieces of data on the extreme environment around a black hole.
The tidal disruption event they monitored, called ASASSN-14li, was of a supermassive black hole estimated to weigh a few million times the mass of the sun in the centre of PGC 043234, a galaxy that lies about 290 million light years away.
Jon Miller of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who led the study, told Nature magazine about the significance of the findings. "We have seen evidence for a handful of tidal disruptions over the years and have developed a lot of ideas of what goes on. This one is the best chance we have had so far to really understand what happens when a black hole shreds a star," he said.
Astronomers hope to find more events like ASASSN-14li to test theoretical models about how black holes affect their environments.