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NASA Spacecraft Captures Cosmic ‘Burping’ of Hungry Black Holes After Swallowing Stars

Sep 20, 2016 05:19 AM EDT
supermassive black hole
A NASA telescope has observed, for the first time, black holes eating stars and emitting flares of high-energy radiation.
(Photo : ESO/M. Kornmesser/Flickr)

A NASA telescope has captured black holes "burping" after eating stars.

For the first time, astronomers have observed the flares of high-energy radiation expelled from black holes using NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) telescope. Two new studies have analyzed tidal disruption flares or the bright energy bursts that are produced when a black hole destroys a star.

"This is the first time we have clearly seen the infrared light echoes from multiple tidal disruption events," Sjoert van Velzen, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and lead author of one of the studies that will be published in the Astrophysical Journal, said in a news release.

When a supermassive black hole swallows a star, the stellar material gets stretched and compressed, an event astronomers call "stellar tidal disruption" or the cosmic "burping" of intense radiation. The flares contain high-energy radiation, including ultraviolet and X-ray light.

According to astronomers, the flares destroy any dust that hangs out around a black hole. However, dust can survive if it's a little distance from the black hole because the radiation that spreads to it is not intense.

Scientists theorized that radiation in the surviving dust will give off an "echo," which could provide clues on the nature of the dust and the tidal disruption flares. Using images from the WISE telescope, the two groups of scientists were able to make observations to prove the theory and make precise measurements of the radiation from the dust. Based on these images, van Velzen's team of researchers were able to find three echoes or black holes surrounded by the radiation-charged dust.

A second study also backed by WISE data, which was led by Ning Jiang, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Science and Technology of China, discovered a fourth potential echo.

"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," Varoujan Gorjian, an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and co-author of the study led by van Velzen, said in a statement.

According to the researchers, the dust forms a shell that reaches a few trillion miles (half a light-year) from the black hole. By examining the dust, the researchers could find clues about the black hole and the stars it feeds on.

"The black hole has destroyed everything between itself and this dust shell," van Velzen said. "It's as though the black hole has cleaned its room by throwing flames."

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