Cast your telescope’s gaze to a point a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, and you may just be lucky enough to see a black hole eating up a star.
And that is just what scientists have done, with the first ever infrared images of the event being released.
The star in question, known to its friends as Swift J1644+57, is pulled close to the super-massive black hole and is ripped apart by the force of gravity.
The intense magnetic fields around the black hole then send a jet of particles straight out into space.
It is those particles that were picked up by astronomers from an international team tracking visible and infrared light using space and ground telescopes.
The blasts of radiation were so bright and powerful that the scientists were sure they could only be coming from a star being sucked up by a black hole.
Im Myung-Shin, a professor at Seoul National University in Korea and a member of the astronomy team that studied the event, said: “There was a lot of curiosity on how black holes grow by becoming heavier. Since the mid-1970s, there were continuous predictions that black holes swallow stars, however, no one has actually captured the moment when a black hole swallows a star.”
“We were finally able to observe the phenomenon which was previously only a theoretical prediction. So we were able to provide new evidence about the existence of the super-massive black hole, and that’s why I think it’s important.”
Scientists are thanking their lucky stars that NASA’s Swift satellite spotted the event – until now they had only ever witnessed the end of the process, rather than the beginning.
The super-massive black hole in question is estimated to have about one million times the mass of our sun.