NASA just captured an incredible look at a black hole eating a star

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When a star drifts too close to a black hole, it meets a grisly fate. The black hole stretches out the star and eventually swallows it up. The violent feeding frenzy is called a "stellar tidal disruption," according to NASA. The event generates a massive amount of energy and huge flares of high-energy radiation.

Previously, we didn't know much about tidal disruptions because it's hard to catch a black hole in the act of devouring a star. Now a team of researchers has captured how the dust surrounding black holes absorbs and reflects the flares produced by a tidal disruption.

Essentially, the researchers captured the first echoes of a black hole devouring a star.

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Supermassive Black Hole Finder
This image released by Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory, shows a supermassive black hole in the nearby spiral galaxy NGC 1365. A study published Thursday in the journal Nature calculated the spin rate of the black hole and found it’s rotating close to the speed of light. (AP Photo/Guido Risaliti, Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory)
This illustration released by NASA, shows a supermassive black hole in the nearby spiral galaxy NGC 1365. A study published Thursday in the journal Nature calculated the spin rate of the black hole and found it’s rotating close to the speed of light. (AP Photo/NASA)
This undated image provided by the Gemini Observatory via the journal Nature shows an artist's conception of stars moving in the central regions of a giant elliptical galaxy that harbors a supermassive black hole. (AP Photo/Gemini Observatory, AURA artwork by Lynette Cook via Nature)
This image provided by NASA shows the most detailed image of particle jets erupting from a supermassive black hole in the nearby galaxy of Centaurus A. The image was created by merging X-ray data (blue) from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory with microwave (orange) and visible images which reveals the jets and radio-emitting lobes emanating from Centaurus A's central black hole. (AP Photo/NASA)
This image provided by NASA Tuesday Nov. 11, 2009 shows observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory in a collaboration to produce an unprecedented image of the central region of our Milky Way galaxy using infrared light and X-ray light to see through the obscuring dust and reveal the intense activity near the galactic core. Note that the center of the galaxy is located within the bright white region to the right of and just below the middle of the image. The entire image width covers about one-half a degree, about the same angular width as the full moon. Each telescope's contribution is presented in a different color. Yellow represents the near-infrared observations of Hubble. The observations outline the energetic regions where stars are being born as well as reveal hundreds of thousands of stars. Red represents the infrared observations of Spitzer. The radiation and winds from stars create glowing dust clouds that exhibit complex structures from compact, spherical globules to long, stringy filaments. Blue and violet represent the X-ray observations of Chandra. X-rays are emitted by gas heated to millions of degrees by stellar explosions and by outflows from the supermassive black hole in the galaxy's center. The bright blue blob on the left side is emission from a double star system containing either a neutron star or a black hole. (AP Photo/NASA) When these views are brought together, this composite image provides one of the most detailed views ever of our galaxy's mysterious core.
This undated photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and released by NASA Monday, May 12, 1997, shows the signature of a supermassive black hole, right. The image at left shows the core of the galaxy, where the suspected black hole dwells. The data at right shows the rotational motion of stars and gas along the slit. The larger the excursion from the centerline, as seen as a green and yellow picture element along the center strip, the greater the rotational velocity. If no black hole were present, the line would be nearly vertical across the scan. (AP Photo/NASA)
This composite photo provided by NASA shows A powerful jet from a supermassive black hole is blasting a nearby galaxy in the system known as 3C321, according to new results from NASA. This galactic violence, never seen before, could have a profound effect on any planets in the path of the jet and trigger a burst of star formation in the wake of its destruction. (AP Photo/NASA)
An image released by NASA Jan. 5, 2010, shows Sagittarius A, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy made from data provided by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The Chandra image of Sagittarius A and the surrounding region is based on data from a series of observations lasting a total of about one million seconds, or almost two weeks. (AP Photo/NASA)
This undated image provided by NASA/CXC/UMass/D. Wang ,from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, shows the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The mosaic of 88 Chandra pointings represents a freeze-frame of the spectacle of stellar evolution, from bright young stars to black holes, in a crowded, hostile environment dominated by a central, supermassive black hole. (AP Photo/NASA/CXC/UMass/D. Wang)
This image made by the Hubble Space Telescope and released by NASA Thursday, April 24, 2008, shows Arp 220, which appears to be a single, odd-looking galaxy, but is in fact a nearby example of the aftermath of a collision between two spiral galaxies. It is the brightest of the three galactic mergers closest to Earth, about 250 million light-years away in the constellation of Serpens, the Serpent. The collision, which began about 700 million years ago, has sparked a cracking burst of star formation, resulting in about 200 huge star clusters in a packed, dusty region about 5,000 light-years across (about 5 percent of the Milky Way's diameter). The amount of gas in this tiny region equals the amount of gas in the entire Milky Way Galaxy. The star clusters are the bluish-white bright knots visible in the Hubble image. Arp 220 glows brightest in infrared light and is an ultra-luminous infrared galaxy. Previous Hubble observations, taken in the infrared at a wavelength that looks through the dust, have uncovered the cores of the parent galaxies 1,200 light-years apart. Observations with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have also revealed X-rays coming from both cores, indicating the presence of two supermassive black holes. Arp 220 is the 220th galaxy in Arp's Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies. This image is part of a large collection of 59 images of merging galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and released on the occasion of its 18th anniversary on 24th April 2008. (AP Photo/NASA,ESA)
In this undated NASA-provided X-ray image made by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the supermassive black hole, which is known as Sagittarius A* or Sgr A*, is seen in the middle of the Milky Way. The X-ray glow from the region close to Sgr A* shows that a relatively small number of low mass stars are located near the black hole. The mysterious black hole has helped give birth to a new generation of stars, new observations suggest. (AP Photo/NASA, CXC, MIT, F.K. Baganoff et al)
This artist's depiction, provided by NASA, demonstrates what scientists believe is happening very close to the Sagittarius A* black hole in the Milky Way. The supermassive black hole is surrounded by a disk of gas (yellow and red). Massive stars, shown in blue, have formed in this disk, while small disks represent where stars are still forming. Results from the Chandra X-ray Observatory show that stars have formed locally in this disk, rather than being deposited there by a star cluster. The mysterious black hole has helped give birth to a new generation of stars, new observations suggest. (AP Photo/NASA, CXC, M. Weiss)
This an artist's Illustration of the RX J1242-11 system depicting how the catastrophic destruction of a star that wandered too close to a supermassive black hole may have occurred. A close encounter with another star put the doomed star (orange circle) on a path that took it near a supermassive black hole. The enormous gravity of the giant black hole stretched the star until it was torn apart. Because of the momentum and energy of the accretion process, only a few percent of the disrupted star's mass (indicated by the white stream) was swallowed by the black hole, while the rest of was flung away into the surrounding galaxy. (AP Photo/Credit: Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)
Mosaic image of a galactic center taken by NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory showing the center region of our Milky Way revealing hundreds of white dwarf stars, neutron stars, and black holes bathed in an incadencent fog of multimillion degree gas. The supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy is located inside a bright white path in the center of the image. The colors indicate X-ray energy bands in red (low), green (medium), and blue (high). (AP Photo/NASA,D.Wang, U.Mass)
PKS 0637-72 is so distant that we see it as it was six billion years ago. It is a luminous quasar that radiates with the power of 10 trillion suns from a region smaller than our solar system. The x-ray image was taken at the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The source of this energy is believed to be a supermassive black hole. Radio observations of PKS 0637-72 show that it has an extended radio jet that stretches across several hundred thousand light years. NASA's new $1 billion X-ray telescope is performingas expected, space agency officials and scientists said Thursday, Aug. 26, 1999. (AP Photo/Chandra X-Ray Center & NASA)
In this infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope released Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2006, shows hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy. In this false-color picture, old and cool stars are blue, while dust features lit up by blazing hot, massive stars are shown in a reddish hue. Both bright and dark filamentary clouds can be seen, many of which harbor stellar nurseries. The plane of the Milky Way's flat disk is apparent as the main, horizontal band of clouds. The brightest white spot in the middle is the very center of the galaxy, which also marks the site of a supermassive black hole. This image is a mosaic of thousands of short exposures taken by Spitzer's infrared array camera. The entire region was imaged in less than 16 hours. (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech)
SPACE - UNDATED: A Computer Simulated Image released by the NASA shows the gas from a star that is ripped apart by tidal forces as it falls into a black hole in Space. Some of the gas also is being ejected at high speeds into space. Using observations from telescopes in space and on the ground, astronomers gathered the most direct evidence yet for this violent process: a supermassive black hole shredding a star that wandered too close. NASA's orbiting Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) and the Pan-STARRS1 telescope on the summit of Haleakala in Hawaii were used to help to identify the stellar remains. A flare in ultraviolet and optical light revealed gas falling into the black hole as well as helium-rich gas that was expelled from the system. When the star is torn apart, some of the material falls into the black hole, while the rest is ejected at high speeds. The flare and its properties provide a signature of this scenario and give unprecedented details about the stellar victim. To completely rule out the possibility of an active nucleus flaring up in the galaxy instead of a star being torn apart, the team used NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to study the hot gas. Chandra showed that the characteristics of the gas didn't match those from an active galactic nucleus. The galaxy where the supermassive black hole ripped apart the passing star in known as PS1-10jh and is located about 2.7 billion light years from Earth. Astronomers estimate the black hole in PS1-10jh has a mass of several million suns, which is comparable to the supermassive black hole in our own Milky Way galaxy. PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA / Barcroft Media /Barcoft Media via Getty Images
This artist's conception illustrates one of the most primitive supermassive black holes known (central black dot) at the core of a young, star-rich galaxy. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
The Herschel Space Observatory has shown that galaxies with the most powerful, active, supermassive black holes at their cores produce fewer stars than galaxies with less active black holes. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

"This is the first time we have clearly seen the infrared light echoes from multiple tidal disruption events," Sjoert van Velzen, lead author on the new study, said in a statement.

NASA just captured an incredible look at a black hole eating a star
Illustration of the echoes of a tidal disruption
Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After a tidal disruption, the high-radiation flares destroy most of the immediate surrounding dust particles. But farther out from the center of the black hole, the flares become less intense. Dust farther from the center gets heated by the flares, but not destroyed.

The heated dust gives off infrared radiation that telescopes can pick up. This is useful because astronomers can use the radiation signatures to get an idea of how much energy was created in the tidal disruption.

"Our study confirms that the dust is there, and that we can use it to determine how much energy was generated in the destruction of the star," co-author Varoujan Gorjian said in the statement.

The research will help scientists better understand tidal disruptions and what happens when stars stray too close to black holes.

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