Photo via NASA
Have you ever wondered what happens when a star (like our Sun) wanders a little too close to a massive black hole? Well, it meets the same fate as pretty much everything else unfortunate enough to find itself in the path of a black hole. This event is called a “stellar tidal disruption,” as the star gets stretched beyond its limits until it’s swallowed whole by the singularity.
Up until just recently, we didn’t have much information about these tidal disruptions because, as one might imagine, it’s not exactly easy trying to find a star being devoured by a black hole. NASA knew that these events produced incredible amounts of energy and radiation, but they could never really find any of it.
Recently, researchers discovered how the dust that surrounds black holes actually absorbs and reflects the high-energy, high-radiation flares emitted by the spectacular tidal disruptions. Or, they found echoes of the destructive events.
"This is the first time we have clearly seen the infrared light echoes from multiple tidal disruption events," Sjoert van Velzen, lead author on the new study, said in a statement.
When a star gets eaten by a black hole, the flares produced by the event typically destroy all surrounding dust cloud particles. However, dust particles that aren’t as close to the flares do not get incinerated, they just become superheated. These heated particles produce an infrared radiation that our telescopes can see, thus astronomers can now measure radiation signatures to determine just how violent a tidal disruption was.
"Our study confirms that the dust is there, and that we can use it to determine how much energy was generated in the destruction of the star," co-author Varoujan Gorjian said in the statement.
This new data gives scientists a better look into stellar tidal disruptions and how they react when being consumed by black holes.