For many here in the United States, today, Friday 11/27/15 is something called Black Friday. It’s unofficially considered to be the first shopping day of the Christmas season and many Americans mark it by heading out to shopping centers and stores in droves in hopes of finding bargains.
NASA is marking the day too; only they’re calling it Black Hole Friday.
It’s an annual event the space agency has set aside for the past three years to post photos and provide the public with information about black holes on their websites, Facebook and Twitter feeds. They even have a special hashtag for the event – #BlackHoleFriday.
Just in time for Black Hole Friday, in a new study published in the journal Science, an international team of physicists say they have made the first observations of a supermassive black hole devouring a star, while at the same time spitting a bit of it back out in the form of a high-speed flare that’s moving matter at nearly the speed of light.
According to Dr. James Miller-Jones, an astrophysicist at Australia’s International Center for Radio Astronomy Research and a member of the research team, the energy produced by the plasma jets in this event is about the entire energy output of the Sun over 10 million years.
“It’s the first time we see everything from the stellar destruction followed by the launch of a conical outflow, also called a jet, and we watched it unfold over several months,” said team-leader Sjoert van Velzen, a Hubble fellow at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland in a press release.
The study tracked the doomed star over several months as it traveled along its normal path and then be pulled in by the tremendous gravity of the black hole.
The team’s study backs up a theory made earlier by astrophysicists who predicted that when huge amounts of gas, or in this particular instance an entire star, are crammed into a black hole, a fast-moving jet of plasma (flare) can burst from near the black hole’s event horizon or rim.
This rare event is taking place in a galaxy named PGC 043234 that is only 300 million light years away. That’s considered to be a relatively close distance to Earth which the scientists said helped them make their observations.
“The consumption of the star is still going on, and we can still observe it using NASA’s Swift satellite, said van Velzen in an email to Science World. “It will likely take a very long time — hundreds of years — to consume all of the stellar debris that remained bound to the black hole. But the most spectacular part is over now,” he said.
The team said that while the black hole they observed is considered to be super massive, which ranks it among the largest of black holes, this one was fairly light with a mass of about a million times that of our sun. Supermassive black holes can have masses that are billions times more than the sun.
The star being pulled into the black hole was described as being close to the same size as our own sun.