The black hole vomits after years of devouring a star

Astronomers have noticed a supermassive black hole with a nasty case of indigestion, apparently after a star was torn and eaten.

The black hole, located at the center of a galaxy about 665 million light-years from Earth, has been discovered vomiting or belching stars about three years after it consumed a star that was wandering too close. Because they haven’t been aware of the hole devouring any other stars since then, scientists say, the October 2018 meal must have come back to haunt it.

This is the first time researchers have seen a black hole with delayed ejection of material after eating. The discovery was published last week in Astrophysical Journal.

“It’s as if this black hole has suddenly started burping a lump of material from the star it ate years ago,” Yvette Sendez, lead author of the study at the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in a statement.

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“It’s as if this black hole has suddenly started to burp a bunch of material from the star that ate it years ago.”

Black holes are among the most elusive things in outer space. The most common type, called a stellar black hole, is believed to be the result of a massive star dying in a supernova explosion. The star’s material then collapses on itself, condensing into a relatively small region.

But how supermassive black holes like this one – millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun – form is even more mysterious. Many astrophysicists and cosmologists believe that these giant planets lie at the center of almost all galaxies. Recent Hubble Space Telescope observations have bolstered the theory that supermassive black holes begin in the dusty cores of starburst galaxies, where new stars form rapidly, but scientists are still figuring it out.

Black holes do not have surfaces, like a planet or a star. Instead, they have a limit called the “event horizon,” aka the point of no return. If anything flips too close, it will fall off. Scientists have long said that once matter is swallowed, it can never escape the gravitational pull of the hole.

So how does a black hole eject portions of its meal if it is claimed to have a cast-iron stomach?

The first real image of Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way.
Credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

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In fact, astronomers say it’s very common for black holes to pour out light immediately after devouring a star, but they liken it to holes that are some kind of messy eater — they lose their mouths because their own gravitational forces stretch the star into hot spirals. This activity creates a flash that astronomers have observed using telescopes.

It is the fact that this star has not aligned well with the black hole for so long is what surprised them. Ido Berger, Harvard University professor of astronomy and co-author, said researchers have been studying these events using radio telescopes for more than a decade.

“There was radio silence for the first three years in this case,” Berger said in a statement. “And now it’s dramatically lit up to become one of the brightest radios ever…”

The discovery suggests that a delayed stream of light from a black hole after a cosmic object has been swallowed up could occur more often than previously thought.

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