NASA throws stars at black hole to see what happens - study

Every single star began to be stretched and deformed by gravity as they approached the black hole. Some survived, others underwent a horrific cosmic catastrophe.

A supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun is seen in an undated NASA artist's concept illustration. (photo credit: REUTERS/NASA/JPL-CALTECH/HANDOUT)
A supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun is seen in an undated NASA artist's concept illustration.
(photo credit: REUTERS/NASA/JPL-CALTECH/HANDOUT)

What happens when a star enters a black hole? This is a question NASA scientists sought to answer in a recent supercomputer simulation.

Published in the peer-reviewed academic periodical The Astronomy Journal, the study, led by Max Planck Institue for Astrophysics fellow Taeho Ryu, saw simulations made via supercomputer depicting stars essentially tossed near a black hole a million times the mass of our Sun.

Black holes are, in essence, just massive concentrations of gravity.

According to Hebrew University of Jerusalem Prof. Tsvi Piran, they act like traps. You can get in, but nothing can get out – even light, which is why it is called a black hole. It is impossible to see inside it, or even see it directly.

Scientists weren't even sure they existed 20-30 years ago. The only way we know the black hole exists is because it has enormous gravitational pull and this enormous gravitational pull influences matter around it.

And according to this simulation, what happens to stars that get too close to these black holes isn't pretty.

Every single star began to be stretched and deformed by gravity as they approached the black hole.

For some, this disruption was only partial, and they didn't lose all of their mass. This meant they were able to retain some of their shapes after they finished skirting the hole. 

Some, however, were not so lucky. These ended up undergoing a tidal disruption event, a horrific cataclysm that saw the stars pulled apart into long streams of gas.

So why did some stars meet this fate, while others managed to escape relatively intact?

While some might think it has to do with mass, that isn't everything. According to Ryu, the most critical factor is density.

Artist impression of a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Artist impression of a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The stars used in the model ranged in mass and density, from around one-tenth the mass of our Sun or 10 times its mass. 

However, other factors that could cause tidal disruption events were also investigated. It is hoped that understanding these further could help humanity estimate how often these cosmic catastrophes happen.

This scenario is one of the many aspects of black holes that scientists look to uncover as more research is undertaken to understand some of the most mysterious and terrifying phenomena that populate the infinite reaches of space.

Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman contributed to this report.