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For the first time ever, a black hole was seen devouring a star and spat some of it back out

The process of a star being sucked in by a black hole was seen by scientists for the first time, and they then watched as part of the star’s substance was spewed back out as a flare of plasma traveling at almost the speed of light, or a cosmic “burp.”

In the past, researchers have seen black holes eat stars and strange jets of stuff shoot out, but until today, no one had been quick enough with their telescopes to connect the two phenomena, and they had never been able to see them take place in succession.

According to principal researcher Sjoert van Velzen of Johns Hopkins University, “These instances are quite unusual.” “We watched it evolve over several months, and this is the first time we witness everything from the star annihilation followed by the launch of a conical outflow, commonly known as a jet.”

What is the significance of this observation, then? It proves that a fast-moving jet of plasma may escape from close to the event horizon when a black hole is forced to consume a significant amount of gas, in this instance an entire star.

Until recently, it was assumed that black holes were so densely packed that nothing, not even light, could escape them. However, scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Gerard ‘t Hooft have demonstrated that energy can escape a black hole, and it now appears that matter can escape from near the event horizon too.

The unfortunate star that was devoured was roughly the size of our Sun, and the black hole in question was a relatively light one located at the center of a galaxy 300 million light-years away.

The first observation of the star being destroyed was made on Twitter in early December by a team from Ohio State University, who had spotted the event using an optical telescope in Hawaii.

Van Velzen and a group of international researchers jumped on the event right away, pointing a slew of radio telescopes in the direction of the galaxy in the hopes of catching the erupting plasma jet that they predicted would soon follow.

They arrived just in time to witness the event from a variety of satellites and telescopes, creating a picture of the event in X-ray, radio, and optical signals. Their findings were published in the journal Science.

The researchers ruled out the possibility that the light was coming from a ‘accretion disk,’ which forms when a black hole absorbs matter from the surrounding space, confirming the hypothesis that the jet was indeed coming from a sucked up star.

“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.”

We still have a lot to learn about how black holes work, but we’re getting closer, and that’s pretty cool.


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