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NASA Captured a Black Hole Eating a Star and Belching Fire

Black hole belches fire
This illustration shows a glowing stream of material from a star as it is being devoured by a supermassive black hole in a tidal | NASA/JPL-Caltech
This illustration shows a glowing stream of material from a star as it is being devoured by a supermassive black hole in a tidal | NASA/JPL-Caltech

If you guessed that black holes have an unexpected amount in common with Al Bundy, give yourself a pat on the back. You were right. 

According to NASA, when a black hole swallows a star — an event called a "stellar tidal disruption" — they release a great burst of energy, including a flare full of high-energy radiation. Basically, they're burping up fire from their stellar meal. Two studies have examined the starry belches, observing the way they obliterate the space dust around the black hole.

Using NASA's Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), researchers have measured the radiation given off by the so-called "hot dust." It can't be seen with the naked eye, but the dust creates a shell within a few trillion miles of the black holes. That's about half a light year out from the epicenter of the burp. Stellar tidal disruption isn't well understood and these studies shed new light on the ways that black holes function.

"The black hole has destroyed everything between itself and this dust shell," said Sjoert van Velzen, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of one study, in a statement. "It’s as though the black hole has cleaned its room by throwing flames."

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Dustin Nelson is a News Writer with Thrillist. He holds a Guinness World Record, but has never met the fingernail lady. He’s written for Sports Illustrated, Men’s Journal, The Rumpus, and other digital wonderlands. Follow him @dlukenelson.