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New Technology Reveals How Black Holes Swallow Stars: The Cosmic Slurp

First Posted: Apr 16, 2014 07:28 AM EDT

Black holes suck down matter like a five-year-old with an ice cream cone. Now, though, scientists are employing technology to get a better look at how black holes swallow stars. The findings could lend better understanding to how stars and black holes interact in the universe.

"Black holes by themselves do not emit light," said Tamara Bogdanovic, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Our best chance to discover them in distant galaxies is if they interact with stars and gas that are around them."

When a star orbits too closely to a black hole, it can result in a bright flash of light. This flare of light starts off very bright and then its luminosity decreases over time in a particular way. By using these observations, the researchers could use computers to simulate the forces involved in a black hole swallowing a star. More specifically, the scientists used a mix of theoretic and computational approaches in order to try to predict the observational signatures of the event, also known as a "tidal disruption."

Tidal disruptions are rare cosmic events. In fact, only a few dozen of the characteristic flare signatures have been observed and deemed "candidates" for tidal disruptions. Yet this may soon change; scientists are using new instruments to gather more data.

"As opposed to a few dozen that have been found over the past 10 years, now imagine hundreds per year-that's a huge difference!" said Bogdanovic in a news release. "It may give us an idea about how many main sequence stars, how many red giants, or white dwarf stars are there on average."

The findings reveal a bit more about tidal disruption candidates. More specifically, it tells scientists a bit more about the complicated interplay between stars and black holes.

"There are many situations in astrophysics where we cannot get insight into a sequence of events that played out without simulations," said Bogdanovic in a news release. "We cannot stand next to the black hole and look at how it accretes gas. So we use simulations to learn about these distant and extreme environments."

The findings were published the Astrophysical Journal.

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