Can a black hole eat stars, then burp? Not exactly, but the explanation for recent discoveries documented by NASA and a team of astrophysicists at the University of Science and Technology of China may be even more interesting. The studies are based on data from NASA's WISE satellite (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) mission.

Black Hole devours stars

A black hole represents a star at the end of its life cycle. Collapsing in on itself, it has become so dense, even light can't escape its gravitational pull. That means it will tend to devour any matter around it, including interstellar dust, gas, and whole stars that happen to wander into its irresistible pull.

The WISE satellite, observing in the infrared spectrum, can analyze much that optical instruments cannot detect.


WISE can get data within 0.1 parsec of the black hole, in contrast with optical telescopes that often have difficulty at 1 parsec. It resulted in unprecedented discoveries.

Objects reach what is called the "Roche limit". At that point, the dying star's gravity begins to rip it apart in a process that is sometimes called "spaghettification" -- which accomplishes exactly what it sounds like. The star is torn apart in elongated strands that eventually spiral into the depths of the black hole.

Turning stars into spaghetti

During spaghettification, WISE observed that the dying star will eject a blast of gas.

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That gas flares up just before being absorbed in an event called a "stellar tidal disruption," which occurs in ultraviolet and X-ray light. It's the infrared echoes of that phenomenon that the WISE data shows, as the energy of the original flare is absorbed by a cloud of dust trillions of miles away.

Supermassive black holes can be many times the size and power of our sun. As they devour all the material that surrounds them, they create an uneven spherical web of dust that lies just outside their gravitational influence. While the infrared echo basically comes from light that bounces off the black hole without becoming absorbed, the phenomenon at first looks something like a burp -- as if the black hole had to let off gas while digesting the star.


The new black hole studies represent the first documentation of the infrared light echoes from multiple tidal disruption events and will be published in the Astrophysical Journal.