Star 'scream' detected as it is devoured by black hole

A new discovery sheds light on how general relativity works in extreme settings -- and makes us think stars being sucked into black holes actually "scream" as they go.

Sometimes the temptation to anthropomorphize is too strong to resist.

And so it goes with a recent discovery astrophysicists made about the waves transmitted by a star about to be sucked in by a previously dormant supermassive black hole.

The press release about the discovery, sent by the University of Michigan, where a team tracked the star's "oscillating signal" (translation: "last gasps," according to the press release), called those sound waves a "scream."

“You can think of it as hearing the star scream as it gets devoured, if you like,” said Jon Miller, astronomy professor at the University of Michigan and a co-author of the paper.

(And we do like that idea: It seems fitting that a star in the constellation Draco the dragon, which is in a galaxy 3.9 billion light-years away, should be screaming as it gets sucked into a black hole.)

Miller and his fellow researchers, including lead author Rubens Reis, an Einstein Postdoctoral Fellow at Michigan, likened the signal being released by the star (called "quasiperiodic oscillations") to a sound because it has at a characteristic frequency.

They said if humans could hear it, it would sound like an ultra-low D-sharp. (That's so low, the star could be moaning instead of screaming.)

The researchers say the oscillations they found from this star have been detected at smaller black holes, where they have also been attributed to material that's being sucked in.

Until this incident, they have never detected these kinds of oscillations from a black hole so far away.

“Our discovery opens the possibility of studying orbits close to black holes that are very distant, and it could make it possible to study general relativity under extreme settings,” Miller said.

Reis also said in the press release that the finding showed how consistent the physics of black holes remained across different sized black holes:

“This is telling us that the same physical phenomenon we observe in stellar mass black holes is also observed in black holes a million times the mass of the Sun, and also for black holes that were previously asleep. It speaks to the invariant nature of physics, which I think is very beautiful.”

Plus, it adds a little melodrama to think of the star "screaming" as it goes.

Related on SmartPlanet:

via: press release, Science

photo: Illustration of a black hole of ten solar masses as seen from a distance of 600km with the Milky Way in the background. (CorvinZahn/Wikimedia)

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