Center for Astrophysics Collaborates to Study Star’s Spaghettification: Death By Black Hole


Scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics collaborated to publish a paper on a star’s spaghettification, the process in which a star is ripped apart by a black hole, last Monday.

Royal Astronomy Society research fellow Matt Nicholl led the study and collaborated with three Harvard astrophysicists to observe a star’s spaghettification with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope and New Technology Telescope.

Following the initial observation period, universities from around the world including Harvard collected additional data to document the event.

Sebastian Gomez, an astrophysics graduate student at Harvard, said Nicholl noted a potentially noteworthy event from initial observations and further data confirmed a signal that suggested spaghettification.


“What Matt did here is he saw one of these alerts and said, ‘Okay, this is coming from the nucleus of the galaxy. It’s consistent with the center of the galaxy, where there is a supermassive black hole. That could be a tidal disruption event, or a star being eaten by a black hole,’” Gomez said.

Griffin Hosseinzadeh, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Astrophysics, said the publication provided novel insight into the process through which stars are destroyed by black holes, particularly because the spaghettification observed was notably closer than in prior occurrences.

“The unique thing about this one in particular — and we’ve found tidal disruption events before — is that this one was the most nearby,” Hosseinzadeh said. “They’re pretty rare events. This one was a great opportunity to get a very high quality data set.”

Yvette Cendes, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Astrophysics who was not affiliated with the study, mentioned how significant the finding was in the field of tidal disruption events, defined as when a star is torn apart by a black hole.

“This discovery is an exciting one because TDEs [tidal disruption events] are a relatively new field in astronomy — it's really only taken off in the last decade or so as more than a side curiosity, for perspective, and there are only less than a hundred TDE candidates,” she wrote in a statement. “Maybe two-thirds of those are well sampled and about 10 total have confirmed radio observations as well.”

Cendes also mentioned the relative closeness of the study’s observed TDE, providing a more detailed glimpse into the process of spaghettification.

“It's the closest TDE we've ever observed, which is really exciting because it means you can see details we haven't been able to observe previously,” she wrote. “When a TDE occurs, the emission from the event lasts for many years after at some frequencies, which can tell you about the inner regions of the host galaxy itself, and this is going to be an interesting object to follow in the years to come.”

Specialists from various universities collaborated to conduct diverse aspects of analysis.

“When you know that there’s a tidal disruption event happening and you need to get observations quickly, you basically call on all of your collaborators to get the observations,” Hosseinzadeh said.

“Ultimately, there’s one group that’s leading the analysis effort, but in terms of getting observations we all work together,” he added.