Astronomers have no idea why black holes keep “burping up” stars they destroyed years ago.

Astronomers have uncovered a surprising phenomenon in the behavior of black holes: they appear to ‘burp up’ a diverse mix of stars, gas, planets, and dust that they had devoured years earlier. This discovery was made possible by monitoring black holes for several years following tidal disruption events (TDEs). Traditionally, scientists had only studied these objects for a few months after a TDE, which occurs when stars venture too close to a black hole and are torn apart in a process known as “spaghettification.”

Understanding Tidal Disruption Events (TDEs)

When a star comes into close proximity to a black hole, it undergoes “spaghettification,” where the gravitational forces stretch it vertically and compress it horizontally. These events, referred to as tidal disruption events (TDEs), emit various forms of radiation such as light, radio waves, and others for several weeks or months. During a TDE, some of the remnants of the destroyed star are expelled away from the black hole, while the rest forms an accretion disk around the black hole, feeding it with stellar material.

The Surprising ‘Burping’ Phenomenon

Researchers at the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics observed that, between two and six years after a TDE, some black holes exhibited ‘burping’ episodes, where material from the TDE event was ejected. Approximately half of the 24 black holes they monitored displayed this behavior, although the exact cause remains unknown. This delayed release of material raises questions about where it is stored before being ‘burped’ back out into space.

Questions Remain

Scientists are puzzled as to the source of this delayed material, ruling out the possibility of it coming from inside the black hole, as black holes have an event horizon beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape. While it’s clear that black holes are “messy eaters,” the precise mechanisms and storage locations for this behavior are not yet understood.

Future Research and Improved Modeling

The researchers plan to continue monitoring the black holes they have been observing, especially those that continue to brighten post-TDE. They also call for enhanced computer modeling to better represent and understand how black holes can exhibit this ‘burping’ behavior years after a TDE. This research, while intriguing, is currently published on the preprint database arXiv and has not yet undergone peer review.

Inside a Black Hole

Black holes, enigmatic objects in the universe, derive their name from their powerful gravitational pull, which is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape from them. As one approaches the event horizon, the point of no return, the gravitational tidal forces become intense, causing the “spaghettification” of any matter.

For small black holes, such a close approach would result in destruction. However, for large black holes, like the supermassive ones at the centers of galaxies, crossing the event horizon would be less dramatic. Scientists have long sought to understand the interior of black holes using Einstein’s equations of general relativity. These equations work effectively until one reaches the singularity, where the curvature of space-time becomes infinite, and the laws of physics break down.

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