“We have seen evidence for a handful of tidal disruptions over the years and have developed a lot of ideas of what goes on,” lead study author Jon Miller of the University of Michigan said in a statement. “This one is the best chance we have had so far to really understand what happens when a black hole shreds a star.”
Here's what we're seeing: The gravity of the black hole pulls most of the star's material down in a filament, heating it to millions of degrees and creating an X-ray flare that astronomers are able to catch via telescopes, such as NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. But then something interesting happens: As the material falls into the black hole's event horizon — from which no light can escape — this flare disappears. So it appears to form a hot, smooth disk as the gaseous star remnants orbit the point at which the black hole will overtake them. Because the center of the disk is so hot, it expels some of its material outward as wind.
The tidal disruption event they observed — known as ASASSN-14li — occurred about 290 million light years away from Earth. But it's still the closest tidal disruption seen in a decade, according to NASA.
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