Scientists Say: Spaghettification

This word describes how extreme gravity, like that of a black hole, stretches an object

an illustration of the spaghettification of a star

Unlucky stars that wander too close to a black hole may find themselves spaghettified. They’re pulled into a long string that resembles a galactic noodle. In this illustration, a black hole (top left) is sucking in a star that’s been turned into long golden strands of gas.

Robin Dienel, Carnegie Institution for Science

Spaghettification (noun, “spuh-GEH-tiff-ICK-cay-shun”)

This word describes how extreme gravity, like that of a black hole, stretches an object into a noodle-like strand.

Black holes are objects in space that contain a huge amount of mass crammed into a small area. As a result, they have intense gravity. Not even light can escape a black hole. An object nearing a black hole experiences much more gravity on the side nearest the black hole. This difference in gravity’s pull stretches the object into a thin string, like a piece of spaghetti. It’s what happens to stars near a black hole. And it’s what would happen if a spacecraft or person ventured too close as well. No need to worry, though. Even the closest black holes are thousands of light-years away.

When a star wanders too close to a black hole, it gets pulled into a long string of gas. Some of the star’s matter gets thrown back into space. The rest of the star’s leftovers orbit the black hole. This material, mostly gas, speeds around and crashes into itself. This orbiting gas forms what’s called an accretion disk. This glowing ring of gas spiraling around the black hole emits a lot of light. Scientists can observe that light to learn about the star-killing event and the black hole itself.

In a sentence

!n 2019, scientists got an early look at the spaghettification of a star.

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Carolyn Wilke is a former staff writer at Science News Explores. She has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. Carolyn enjoys writing about chemistry, microbes and the environment. She also loves playing with her cat.

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