A Supermassive Black Hole Has Been Caught Red-Handed Chewing Up a Huge Star and Spitting Stellar Guts into the Cosmic Abyss

In a cosmic event that sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, scientists have observed a supermassive black hole tearing apart a massive star and spitting its "guts" into the darkness of space. 

This extraordinary phenomenon was revealed through the study of an event dubbed ASASSN-14li, located some 280 million light-years from Earth.

The Crime Scene: ASASSN-14li

The event was first discovered in 2014, but new information gleaned from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton has provided stunning details. The star, believed to have harbored about three times the mass of our sun, was ripped apart by the black hole, with its insides literally tossed into space.

"We are seeing the guts of what used to be a star," said Jon Miller of the University of Michigan, who led the study.

The Culprit: A Supermassive Black Hole

The black hole associated with this tidal disruption event (TDE) is responsible for the star's destruction. TDEs occur when a black hole's gravitational forces impact a star that got too close, sending out a flare emitting optical, ultraviolet, and X-ray wavelengths. This flare happens in conjunction with the star's debris heating up.

Scientists used an X-ray spectrum from Chandra to probe the elements contained in this wind, including the detection of nitrogen. The X-ray data indicates that the star in ASASSN-14li was about three times the mass of the sun, making it one of the largest stars ever known to be destroyed in a TDE. (Image credit: NASA/CXC/Univ of Michigan/J. Miller et al)

The researchers employed powerful instruments to study these TDE-rooted wavelengths and figure out the concentrations of elements surrounding the black hole in ASASSN-14li. They were able to parse the ratio of nitrogen to carbon present at the cosmic crime scene with stunning detail, leading to the revelation of the star's mass and the black hole's destructive act.

The Victim: A Massive Star

The star's mass was about three times that of the sun, making it one of the largest stars ever known to be destroyed in a TDE. The findings contrast with previous work, which suggested a much smaller mass for the star. The new evidence paints a vivid picture of a doomed star caught in the grips of a supermassive black hole.

A Cosmic Mystery Unveiled

The event ASASSN-14li is exciting not just for its dramatic nature but also for the scientific insights it provides. Understanding the mass of the unlucky star and the details of its destruction helps scientists probe the mysteries of the universe.

"These X-ray telescopes can be used as forensic tools in space," said co-author Brenna Mockler, emphasizing the importance of the discovery.

Conclusion: A Glimpse into the Violent Universe

The observation of a supermassive black hole chewing up a huge star and spitting its stellar guts into the cosmic abyss offers a rare and spellbinding glimpse into the violent and mysterious universe. It's a reminder of the incredible forces at play in the cosmos and the continual quest to unravel the secrets hidden across the fabric of space and time.

A paper on these findings was published in the Aug. 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters, marking a significant contribution to our understanding of black holes, stars, and the dynamic interactions that shape the universe.

Research Paper