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What does it look like when a black hole devours a star? NASA offers clues

They can have a mass millions of times as large as the sun. They sit at the center of galaxies that have billions of stars. But most of the time, black holes are pretty much invisible to human instruments.

A team of researchers including MIT scientists caught a rare glimpse of a black hole in action recently, as it devoured a star, creating a display of light and radiation that beamed through the universe for nearly 300 million years before it finally reached Earth.

The star’s descent into oblivion has provided some new insights into how black holes develop and their relationships to the celestial bodies around them.

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In a paper published last week in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the team of researchers described a “tidal disruption flare” that illuminated the activities of the black hole as it sucked the life from the star.

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“We are actually mapping out in real time what is happening as the star is getting ripped [apart] and it’s falling onto the black hole,” Dheeraj Pasham, the paper’s first author and a postdoctoral researcher in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, said in an interview.

Interestingly, the black hole did not consume the star outright, instead choking it down in bursts as it pulled stardust into an elliptical orbit. As the debris swirled closer, it collided with itself, giving off bursts of light that observers were able to detect.

After the collisions, the debris eventually fell closer to the black hole, where it got so hot that it created X-ray flares before falling into the black hole.

The research, done with the help of researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the University of Maryland, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Columbia University, and Johns Hopkins University, began when satellites picked up signs of the disruption on Nov. 11, 2014.

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A worldwide network of robotic telescopes turned their focus toward the event, which allowed scientists to gather a significant amount of information about what was happening.

Pasham said an observer might have to wait as long as 100,000 years to see tidal disruption flares in any given galaxy, and he credited programs like the satellite network that can react quickly when one is detected.

“That has allowed us to detect these events,” he said. “They have the great potential to unravel the hidden population of supermassive black holes.”

Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen.