Scientists have recorded the last gasps of a star being swallowed by a black hole, and are likening its “quasiperiodic oscillations” to a human scream.
“You can think of it as hearing the star scream as it gets devoured,” astronomer Jon Miller told University of Michigan’s press service.
However, the old Alien tagline still applies: in space, no one can hear you scream. Without any medium to move through, sound waves can’t travel through the vacuum of space — so by “scream,” Miller actually means that the star emits an oscillating signal at a frequency that, if converted into something audible, would sound like an ultra-low D-sharp.
As the star is being ripped apart by the black hole, its material “wobbles” just before being devoured. That wobble, scientists think, is the source of the signal detected by their telescopes.
A team at the University of Michigan recorded the signal using the Suzaku and XMM-Newton orbiting telescopes. While similar phenomena have been observed in big black holes before, scientists have never detected such an event from so far away; this particular black hole lives in a galaxy approximately 3.9 billion light years from Earth, in the constellation Draco.
“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.
And don’t worry—despite its protestations, the star didn’t feel any pain.