NASA Captured a Black Hole Eating a Star and Belching Fire

That’s not something you see every day. Or ever.

According to NASA, when a black hole swallows a star — an event called a “stellar tidal disruption” — they release a great burst of energy, including a flare full of high-energy radiation. Basically, they’re burping up fire from their stellar meal. Two studies have examined the starry belches, observing the way they obliterate the space dust around the black hole.

Using NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), researchers have measured the radiation given off by the so-called “hot dust.” It can’t be seen with the naked eye, but the dust creates a shell within a few trillion miles of the black holes. That’s about half a light year out from the epicenter of the burp. Stellar tidal disruption isn’t well understood and these studies shed new light on the ways that black holes function.

“The black hole has destroyed everything between itself and this dust shell,” said Sjoert van Velzen, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of one study, in a statement. “It’s as though the black hole has cleaned its room by throwing flames.”

Supermassive black holes don’t reflect any light themselves, but they are frequently surrounded by disks of hot, shining material. The gravity of a black hole tugs spinning gas into it, heating this material and triggering it to sparkle with several types of light. Another cause of radiation near a black hole is the corona. Coronas are made of extremely energetic particles that produce X-ray light, but data and observations about their appearance, and how they come to existence, are uncertain. Astronomers propose that coronas have one of two possible shapes. According to the ‘lamppost’ model they are dense sources of light, alike to light bulbs that sit above and also below the black hole, along its rotation axis.

The second model suggests that the coronas are spread out more pretentiously, either as a bigger cloud which surround the black hole, or as a ‘sandwich’ that encloses the surrounding disk of material like cuts of bread.

The recently collected data back the ‘lamppost’ model – and validate, in the best detail yet, how the light-bulb-like coronas travel.

The observations started when Swift, which observer the sky for cosmic outbreaks of X-rays and gamma rays, spotted a huge flare coming from the supermassive black hole recognized as Markarian 335, or Mrk 335, situated 324 million light-years away in the constellation Pegasus.

This supermassive black hole, which resides at the center of a galaxy, was once one of the perkiest X-ray sources in the sky. The results were published in journal Nature.