A black hole’s lunch: Stellar spaghetti

Astronomers call it “spaghettification,” and it’s not a pretty idea: It’s what happens when you venture too close to a and fall in. Tidal forces stretch you and break you like a noodle, then your shreds circle the until they collide and knock each other in.

On the upside, the energy released by your long fall and the crashing together of what used to be your atoms might produce a flash that can be seen across the universe.

In a case reported last week, it was merely an anonymous star in a faraway galaxy that met its doom. Thanks to luck and ever-increasing vigilance of the heavens, the world was watching as the star went down.

“Indeed, it was quite a feast,” said Matt Nicholl, an astrophysicist at the University of Birmingham in an email. He led a team of astronomers that described this stellar apocalypse in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“This was a messy eater,” added Kate Alexander of Northwestern University and a member of Nicholl’s team, in an email. In the end, she said, only about half the star was consumed by the black hole. The rest of its disintegrated material was blown outward into space at a breakneck speed a few percent that of light.

The excitement began on September 19, 2019, when the Zwicky Transient Facility, a telescope on Palomar Mountain in California, and other celestial surveillance networks detected a flare in the centre of a galaxy 215 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Eridanus.

©2020 The New York Times News Service

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