What Is Spaghettification? Black Hole 'Sucking In' Star Seen by Scientists

Scientists have spotted a supermassive hole "sucking in" a star around 215 million light-years from Earth, causing it to be "spaghettified."

The term spaghettification term describes the bizarre vertical stretching that takes place when objects pass through extreme gravitational fields. Black holes in particular have such a strong gravitational pull, that beyond a certain point—known as the event horizon—nothing, not even light, can escape.

The stretching experienced by anything close to a black hole is so powerful, that no object would be able to withstand the forces being experienced, and would be ripped apart.

"If a human were to approach close enough to a black hole, feet-first for example, the force of gravity increases so much that the gravity at their feet would be much greater than the force of gravity at their head," Morgan Hollis, a spokesperson for the Royal Astronomical Society in the U.K., told Newsweek in an email.

"This would result in them being stretched out vertically, rather like stretching dough to form spaghetti—this is what 'spaghettification' means."

The term "spaghettification" has been in use since at least the late 1970s and also appears in Stephen Hawking's well-known book A Brief History of Time, which was first published in 1988.

Stars can also experience "spaghettification" during what astrophysicists call "tidal disruption events." This is when stars stray too close to supermassive black holes and are ripped apart by its extreme gravitational forces.

This is what happened to a star around 215 million light-years away that has been documented in a study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

A team of scientists observed a powerful flash of light last year that was produced by a supermassive black hole devouring the star.

"The idea of a black hole 'sucking in' a nearby star sounds like science fiction. But this is exactly what happens in a tidal disruption event," Matt Nicholl, lead author of the study from the University of Birmingham, U.K., said in a statement.

The black hole in question has a mass about one million times that of the sun. The researchers said about half of the mass of the star was captured into what's known as an accretion disk around the black hole, while the other half was ejected outwards in a powerful jet of material that traveled up to around 22 million miles per hour.

An accretion disk is a hot, thin, rotating structure consisting of matter that is falling into the black hole. In this case, the scientists observed dust and debris from the star being sucked in to the accretion disk of the black hole, just before it was ripped apart.

The tidal disruption event in the study—dubbed "AT2019qiz"—is the nearest to Earth ever discovered, providing an unprecedented insight into this phenomenon. It could help improve our understanding of how black holes interact with the material that surrounds them.

"This event is teaching us about the detailed physical processes of accretion and mass ejection from supermassive black holes," Edo Berger, another author of the study from Harvard University, said in the statement.

tidal disruption event
Artist's illustration of a star experiencing spaghettification as it is sucked in by a supermassive black hole during a "tidal disruption event." Such an event has been documented in a new study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. ESO/M. Kornmesser