For the first time ever, scientists have recorded an explosive phenomenon known as "spaghettification." This phenomenon occurs when an object approaches a black hole and becomes stretched under the immense gravitational force exerted by the black hole. The black hole then devours the object before finally letting loose a massive amount of energy.
Two separate research teams were able to record this event by examining infrared light from the black hole disruptions, which was captured and "echoed" by the surrounding space dust and allowed the researchers to measure the intensity of the flares. A study, which has described three such cases, was published last week in Astrophysical Journal.
"The black hole has destroyed everything between itself and this dust shell," Sjoert Van Velzen, postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of the study, said in a statement. "It's as though the black hole has cleaned its room by throwing flames."
An incredible burst of energy is released each time a black hole consumes a star. This event is called a "stellar tidal disruption" and produces bright flares surrounding the black hole's event horizon. A handful of these events have been recorded and described in recent years, but those studies were not able to provide details beyond the mechanics of the "burp."
Black hole flares - "burps" - are filled with X-ray and ultraviolet radiation, which vaporize small pieces of matter and dust. But particles are able to survive the radiation from these flares at a certain distance, leaving a shell of super heated dust a few trillion miles from the black hole's center.
This surviving dust gives off infrared radiation, echoing the flare. This infrared emission can be detected for up to a year after the flare hits its brightness peak, according to researchers.
Data from NASA's WIde-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) was used by researchers to capture these "light echoes." By measuring the delay between the original flare and the infrared copy, the researchers were able to determine the distance between the black hole and the dust. The WISE spacecraft performs scans every six months, so researchers were able to capture gradual changes in emission.
"Our study confirms that the dust is there, and that we can use it to determine how much energy was generated in the destruction of the star," co-author Varoujan Gorjian said in a statment.