We’ve finally seen the space horror that is a black hole choking on stardust

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Sep 27, 2017

Black holes are hungry, and when unsuspecting stars float by, the stellar disembowelment that ensues can get gory. 300 million light-years away, one black hole was so ravenous it actually choked on its victim.

Appropriately named tidal disruption event ASASSN-14li (get it?), the massive electromagnetic burst — which resulted when an oblivious star became savaged by a supermassive black hole that mysteriously "choked" on the debris — was dissected in a NASA-funded study by researchers from MIT and NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center. It that was later published in Astrophysical Journal Letters and reported on in MIT News.

While black holes eat stars whenever they get the opportunity, this cosmic choking phenomenon — in which high-energy stellar debris, which we euphemistically call stardust, was about to fall into the black hole when it came back up — is unexpected

That, and we still don’t know exactly what goes on in the chaos of tidal disruption flares.

Watch NASA's video of ASASSN-14li in action.

“For supermassive black holes steadily accreting, you wouldn’t expect this choking to happen,” said postdoc and team lead Dheeraj Pasham, according to MIT News. “The material around the black hole would be slowly rotating and losing some energy with each circular orbit. But that’s not what’s happening here. Because you have a lot of material falling onto the black hole, it’s interacting with itself, falling in again, and interacting again.”

You can’t venture dangerously close to a black hole and just pass by unnoticed. Tidal disruption flares happen when an unlucky star that gets too close is caught by the immense gravity and ripped to shreds (kind of like that kid who wandered a little too close to the sewer in It). Star innards erupt with insane energy bursts containing every kind of light on the electromagnetic spectrum, from optical (visible light) to gamma rays. They are also even rarer than monster clown abductions. Like, once every 10,000 to 100,000 years.

Even weirder is what two different telescopes observed in the energy being vomited by the flare. The team was able to get a clearer vision of the event by running simulations. As astral debris descended to the point of no return, this matter would collide with itself and release blazes of optical and UV light. The more the black hole’s relentless gravitational appetite pulled it in, the heating up of the colliding debris would produce X-ray flares in the same pattern as the optical and UV bursts just before it vanished forever.

Just be glad that neither Pennywise the Clown nor supermassive black holes that bite off more than they can chew actually exists on Earth.

(via MIT News)

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