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According to two astrophysicists from Paris Observatory, the fate of stars that venture too close to massive black holes could be even more violent than previously believed. Not only are they crushed by the black hole’s huge gravity, but the process can also trigger a nuclear explosion that tears the star apart from within. In addition, shock waves in the pancake star carry a brief and very high peak of temperature outwards, that could give rise to a new type of X-ray or gamma-ray bursts.
The disruption of a star by the tidal forces of a massive black hole. The diagram illustrates the progressive deformation of the star when it plunges deep inside the so-called « tidal radius » (the size of the star has been considerably enlarged for clarity). The upper view shows the deformation of the star in its orbital plane (seen from above), the middle view shows the deformation in the perpendicular plane (seen from the side), and the lower view depicts the magnitude of flattening. From (a) to (d) the tidal forces are weak and the star remains practically spherical. At (e) the star penetrates the tidal radius and is doomed to be destroyed. First it become cigar-shaped, then from (e) to (g) the squeezing of the tidal forces flattens the star in its orbital plane to the shape of a pancake. Next the star rebounds, and as it leaves the tidal radius in (h), it starts to expand. A little further on its orbit the star finally breaks up into gas fragments. Detailed hydrodynamical simulations taking account of shock waves have been performed during the crushing phase (e) to (g). (Credit: Copyright J.-P. Luminet)