Playing with black holes is a risky business, especially for a star that is unlucky enough to be orbiting one. Assuming an unfortunate star hasn't already had all of its hydrogen fuel and other component elements stripped from its surface, the powerful tidal forces will have some fun with the doomed stellar body.
Playing with black holes is a risky business, especially for a star that is unlucky enough to be orbiting one. Assuming an unfortunate star hasn't already had all of its hydrogen fuel and other component elements stripped from its surface, the powerful tidal forces will have some fun with the doomed stellar body. First the star will be stretched out of shape and then it will be flattened like a pancake. This action will compress the star generating violent internal nuclear explosions, and shockwaves will ripple throughout the tormented stellar plasma. This gives rise to a new type of X-ray burst, revealing the sheer power a black hole's tidal radius has on the smaller binary sibling. Sounds painful…
It is intriguing to try to understand the dynamics near a supermassive black hole, especially when a star strays too close. Recent observations of a distant galaxy suggests the material pulled from a star near the center of a galactic nucleus caused a powerful X-ray flare which echoed from the surrounding molecular torus. The infalling stellar gas was sucked into the black hole's accretion disk, generating a huge quantity of energy as a flare. Whether or not the star stayed intact for the duration of its death-spiral into the supermassive black hole it is unknown, but scientists have been working on a new model of a star orbiting a black hole weighing in at a few million solar masses (assuming the star can hold it together for that long).
Matthieu Brassart and Jean-Pierre Luminet of the Observatoire de Paris-Meudon, France, are studying the effects of the tidal radius on a star orbiting close to a supermassive black hole. The tidal radius of a supermassive black hole is the distance at which gravity will have a far greater pull on the leading edge of the star than the following edge. This massive gravitational gradient causes the star to be stretched beyond recognition. What happens next is a little strange. In a matter of hours, the star will swing around the black hole, through the tidal radius, and out the other end. But according to the French scientists, the star that comes out isn't the same as the star that went in. The star deformation is described in the accompanying diagram and detailed below:
- (a)-(d): Tidal forces are weak and the star remains practically spherical.
- (e)-(g): Star falls into the tidal radius. This is the point at which it is destined to be destroyed. It undergoes changes in its shape, first "cigar shaped", then it gets squeezed as the tidal forces flatten the star in its orbital plane to the shape of a pancake. Detailed hydrodynamical simulations of shock wave dynamics have been carried out during this "crushing phase".
- (h): After swinging around the point of closest approach in its orbit (perihelion), the star rebounds, leaving the tidal radius and begins to expand. Leaving the black hole far behind, the star breaks up into clouds of gas.
As the star is dragged around the black hole in the "crushing phase" it is believed that the pressures will be so great on the deformed star that intense nuclear reactions will occur throughout, heating it up in the process. This research also suggests powerful shock waves will travel through the hot plasma. The shock waves would be powerful enough to produce a short (<0.1 second) blast of heat (>109 Kelvin) propagating from the star's core to its deformed surface, possibly emitting a powerful X-ray flare or gamma-ray burst. Due to this intense heating, it seems possible that most of the stellar material will escape the black holes gravitational pull, but the star will never be the same again. It will be transformed into vast clouds of turbulent gas.
This situation wouldn't be too hard to imagine when considering the dense stellar volume in galactic nuclei. In fact, Brassart and Luminet have estimated that there may be 0.00001 event per galaxy, and although this may seem low, future observatories such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) may detect these explosions, possibly several per year as the Universe is transparent to hard X-ray and gamma-ray emissions