Artist's illustration of a star (in the foreground) experiencing spaghettification as it’s sucked in by a supermassive black hole (in the background) (Credit: ESO.M. Kornmesser) s

Stars that get too close to black holes usually end up getting sucked in by the strong gravitational forces of the dense space objects, from which no light can escape. Now, for the first time, researchers have been able to observe the cosmic phenomenon — nicknamed "spaghettification" because it pulls apart a star into thin "spaghetti-like" strands — in real-time.

"When an unlucky star wanders too close to a supermassive black hole in the center of a galaxy, the extreme gravitational pull of the black hole shreds the star into thin streams of material," said study co-author Dr. Thomas Wevers from the University of Cambridge.

The first indication that a star may be in trouble came in September 2019, when telescopes worldwide observed a bright blast of light near a well-known black hole, just 215 million light-years from Earth. Suspecting it was caused by a star being shredded, a team led by the University of Birmingham's Dr. Matt Nicholl, turned the powerful telescopes at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile towards the small patch of sky in the constellation of Eridanus, where the illumination had been seen.

Observations made over the next six months revealed that the star, which was roughly the same mass as our Sun, lost about half of its matter to the black hole. "In this case, the star was torn apart with about half of its mass feeding — or accreting — into a black hole of one million times the mass of the sun, and the other half was ejected outward," explained astronomer Edo Berger from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on October 12, 2020, say that catching the star's demise early in the cycle gave them an unprecedented view of the cosmic carnage. The event, categorized AT2019qiz, allowed researchers to finally witness the powerful forces that cause the simultaneous pull of the shredded star into the black hole and the outward explosion of its material.

"We could actually see the curtain of dust and debris being drawn up as the black hole launched a powerful outflow of material with velocities up to 10,000 km/s (22 million miles per hour)," explained Kate Alexander, a NASA Einstein Fellow at Northwestern University. "This is a unique 'peek behind the curtain' that provided the first opportunity to pinpoint the origin of the obscuring material and follow in real-time how it engulfs the black hole."

In addition to furthering our knowledge about a black hole's mysterious workings and how matter behaves in its extreme gravitational environment, the findings may, some day, also help intergalactic travelers from turning into space spaghetti!