If a dead star passes close to a medium-sized black hole it can come back to life for a brief moment, according to a new study published on the preprint site Arxiv.org and accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.
This finding comes from a group of international astronomers, who performed a series of computer simulations that revealed what happens when a burned-out stellar corpse — also called a white dwarf — moves by an intermediate-mass black hole.
After analyzing the data, researchers found that the hole’s strong gravity can stretch and distort the dwarf in such a way that the elements inside its core reignite for a few seconds.
Those so-called “tidal disruption events” can also create gravitational waves that, while not detectable by current technology, could be picked up for study in the future.
The new study is important for a few reasons, but one of the biggest is that it sheds light on medium-sized black holes, which have proven difficult to study. Though many smaller and larger holes are on record, the middle ones are not easy to pin down. As a result, the more information on them, the better.
“It is important to know how many intermediate mass black holes exist, as this will help answer the question of where supermassive black holes come from,” study co-author Chris Fragile, a professor of physics and astronomy at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, according to Space.com.“Finding intermediate mass black holes through tidal disruption events would be a tremendous advancement.”
Another reason the finding is important is because it shows how the sun could die in the distant future. Every star that begins its life with about 8 solar masses or fewer will end up as a superdense white dwarf, and analyzing our star in light could provide more insight into the universe’s larger mechanisms.