Hubble Image Of A Black Hole TEARING Apart A Star. So Good.

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That vague picture above is a poor rendition of something that is probably beyond the comprehension of our fat simian grey matter. It’s a black hole literally tearing apart a star.

Bad Astronomy:

I know, it may not look like much at first. But remember what you’re seeing: the violent death of a star ripped apart by the gravity of a black hole… and it’s happening 3.8  billion light years away! That’s about 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers, so the fact that we can see it at all is pretty amazing. And terrifying.


And so just what  are we seeing?

Imagine: what may have been a normal star not much different than the Sun was orbiting the center of this distant galaxy, very close indeed to the middle. In the core of every big galaxy there lies a monster: a supermassive black hole which may have millions or even billions of times the Sun’s mass. This one at the heart of this unnamed galaxy may have topped off at half a million solar masses.

The gravity from such an object is fierce. But worse, the strength of gravity fades with distance. That may seem like a saving grace — being farther from a black hole means its gravity is diminished — but in fact that’s what spelled doom for this star, because that drop in strength can be very sharp for a black hole. As the star approached this bottomless pit, the side of the star facing the black hole was pulled far harder than the other side of the star, which may have been a million or more kilometers farther away from the black hole. This change in pull stretched the star – this stretching is called a “tide”,  and is essentially the same thing that causes tides on the Earth from the Moon’s gravity… and when the star wandered too close to the black hole, the strength of that pull became irresistible, overcoming the star’s own internal gravity.

It’s a bit of an obvious/redundant statement, but the laws of nature are fucking amazing. Head over to Bad Astronomy for the rest of Plait’s excellent explanation.