What happens when a supermassive black hole devours a star? This computer model gives us some clues
Supermassive black holes may have been the subject of a 2006 hit for Muse, but their mysteries were never really addressed through Matt Bellamy’s lyrics. How, exactly, were we supposed to relate to the idea of a “superstar sucked into the supermassive”?
Thankfully, there is now an answer as theoretical astrophysicists have provided the scientific community with the most accurate computer model of such an event. Dr Jane Lixin Dai and Professor Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz from the DARK Cosmology Centre at the Niels Bohr Institute Copenhagen created the computer model to aid the investigation in tidal disruption events, a rare event that takes place in the centre of galaxies throughout the universe.
Supermassive black holes have a mass, millions to billions of times heavier than the Sun, causing an immense gravity well that devours everything unlucky enough to be drawn into it. Despite their size, it’s almost impossible for researchers to observe them as they emit no light nor any radiation. The only time they become observable is when they suck large amounts of material into their inky nothingness.
Being able to understand more about why these events take place, and what really happens during them, is hugely important for astrophysicists. By observing tidal disruption events, it’s possible to understand more about how supermassive black holes are formed and how they may or may not lie dormant at the centre of a galaxy.
Occasionally – as infrequent as once in every 10,000 years or so – a star will cross the path of these black holes. When something as big and heavy as a star is pulled into a supermassive black hole a strange phenomenon occurs. The star’s mass is so huge that it can’t simply be devoured in one go, instead, it’s crushed and torn asunder, emitting vast amounts of radiation and light in the process. Because of this dazzling display of energy disruption at the centre of galaxies, astrophysicists are able to study what happens during a tidal disruption event.
Unfortunately, observing such events from Earth mean you’re only able to observe activity from a single angle. Unhelpful when you’re trying to understand exactly what’s going on.
“It is like there is a veil that covers part of a beast,” Ramirez-Ruiz explained. “From some angles, we see an exposed beast, but from other angles, we see a covered beast. The beast is the same, but our perceptions are different.” There’s simply no way of knowing what’s happening from all other observable angles, which is where Dai and Ramirez-Ruiz’s computational model comes into play.
Developed by combining elements of general relativity, magnetic field, radiation and gas measurements, the computer model is designed to weigh up what a tidal disruption event would look like from different angles. This new level of insight allows for a deeper understanding of just how these elusive galactic elements are formed and exist.
“Only in the last decade or so have we been able to distinguish TDEs from other galactic phenomena, and the model by Dr Dai will provide us with the basic framework for understanding these rare events,” explained Ramirez-Ruiz.
It’s hoped that, in the coming years, further research can be undertaken to help expand the computational model to increase its accuracy and help astrophysicists really understand the building blocks of our universe.