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Supermassive Black Hole Caught in the Act of Swallowing a Star for the First Time

First Posted: Nov 27, 2015 09:11 AM EST

Scientists have caught their first ever glimpse of a supermassive black hole eating a star. The new findings could be huge when it comes to better understanding supermassive black holes.

In this latest study, the researchers tracked a star about the size of the sun as it shifted from its customary path, slipped into the gravitational pull of a supermassive black hole, and then was sucked in.

"These events are extremely rare," said Sjoert van Velzen, one of the researchers, in a news release. "It's the first time we see everything from the stellar destruction followed by a launch of a conical outflow, also called a jet, and we watched it unfold over several months."

Black holes are areas of space that are so dense that irresistible gravitational force stops the escape of matter, gas and even light, rendering them invisible and creating the effect of a void in the fabric of space. Astrophysicists had predicted that when a black hole is force-fed a large amount of gas, such as a star, then a fast-moving jet of plasma can escape near the black hole rim. In this case, it seems as if this is correct.

"Previous efforts to find evidence for these jets, including my own, were late to the game," said van Velzen.

Now, it seems that researchers have confirmation that these jets appear when a star or a large amount of gas is swallowed by a supermassive black hole.

"The destruction of a star by a black hole is beautifully complicated, and far from understood," said van Velzen. "From our observations, we learn the streams of stellar debris can organize and make a jet rather quickly, which is valuable input for constructing a complete theory of these events."

The findings are published in the journal Science.

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