Are we Seeing a Star That Just got Spaghettified?

Are we Seeing a Star That Just got Spaghettified?

Sometimes astronomers come up with fantastic names for certain phenomena and then feel that they cannot use them in formal scientific contexts. Tidal Disruption Events (TDEs) are one of them – colloquially they are referred to as “spaghetti”, in which a star is pulled apart until its component looks like a spaghetti chain.

Astronomers have long known this process that occurs when a star comes too close to a black hole. Most of the knowledge, however, comes from studying the bursts of radiation given off by the black hole as it engulfs the star. A team led by Giacomo Cannizzaro and Peter Jonker from SRON, the Netherlands Institute for Space Research, and Radboud University now believe they have received the first glimpses of a star that is actively spaghettified around the pole of a black hole.

An image of the accretion disk of the supermassive black hole as the center of M87.
Photo credit: EHT Collaboration

These filaments of material have never been imaged before because most of the image instances of an “accretion disk,” known as the disks of material surrounding the black holes, are viewed from the edge, meaning they appear as a ribbon of material in front of the black hole , as Saturn’s rings would appear if viewed from the edge. The SRON team first captured information about the accreditation disc while looking at one of the poles of the black hole.

Accretion disks emit X-rays but do not do so directly. When the SRON team found that they had captured X-ray signatures in their spectra, they found that they were viewing the accretion disk of a black hole from a new perspective. This perspective would be like looking down at the rings of Saturn from far above the pole of the planet and finally being able to really appreciate how many there are.

UT video describing the process of falling into a black hole.

And there are really many strands of material wrapped around this observed black hole – the team recorded separate absorption lines that indicate that multiple strands of material are wrapped around the star multiple times. This ball of thread pattern is similar to what would be expected in a spaghetti-proofing process. Additionally, there was no Doppler shift in the data, indicating that the material was not rotating, which in turn suggests the underlying cause of the disc.

While the spectral data has not yet been translated into a pretty image for public consumption, it puts another feather in the cap of the TDE theory of how stars interact with black holes. Let’s hope astronomers can come up with some other unique names for more esoteric processes – a battering perhaps?

Learn more:
SRON astronomers see the first evidence of a spaghetti-stripe star with a silhouette
MNRAS – Accretion Disk Cooling and Narrow Absorption Lines in the Tidal Disturbance Event AT? 2019dsg
UT – Astronomers watch a star become spaghettified by a black hole
UT – matter is burned when it falls into a black hole
Tech Explorist – Astronomers see the silhouette of the spaghetti star

Mission statement:
Artist’s impression of a black hole spaghettifying a star.
Photo credit: NASA / CXC / M. Weiss

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