Stars can die quietly: New study reveals hidden black hole formation

An artist impression of the binary system VTFS 243. Credit: ESOL. Calçada CC BY 4.0

Recent research has uncovered a mysterious phenomenon: some stars can vanish from the night sky without a supernova explosion.

This new study provides strong evidence that massive stars can collapse into black holes quietly, without the dramatic explosion typically associated with their deaths.

Stars like our sun will eventually expand, engulfing nearby planets, including Earth, before shrinking into dense white dwarfs.

However, if the sun were about eight times more massive, it would likely end its life in a spectacular explosion known as a supernova.

This explosive death scatters energy and mass into space, leaving behind either a neutron star or a black hole.

While this is common knowledge, scientists have now discovered that some very massive stars can die in a much quieter manner.

Instead of exploding, these stars can undergo what is called a “complete collapse.”

This means their gravitational pull becomes so strong that the star collapses entirely, forming a black hole without any explosion.

This finding is connected to the mysterious disappearance of stars that astronomers have observed in recent years. Alejandro Vigna-Gómez from the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics explains that if we were to watch such a star during its total collapse, it would look like the star suddenly vanished from the sky.

The collapse is so complete that no explosion occurs, and no bright supernova is visible.

The study’s breakthrough came from observing an unusual binary star system called VFTS 243 at the edge of our galaxy. In this system, a large star orbits a black hole about ten times more massive than our sun.

The researchers analyzed data from this system, looking for signs of a past supernova explosion but found little evidence to support such an event.

The system shows no significant “natal kick,” an acceleration that usually follows a supernova explosion. Instead, the star and black hole have a nearly perfect circular orbit, and the energy patterns observed are consistent with a complete collapse.

Irene Tamborra from the Niels Bohr Institute, who also participated in the study, says that their analysis strongly indicates that the black hole in VFTS 243 formed immediately, with most energy lost through neutrinos.

This finding allows scientists to compare astrophysical theories and models with actual observations, providing a better understanding of stellar evolution and collapse.

Tamborra highlights that VFTS 243 is the best observable example of a stellar black hole formed through total collapse. This system will serve as an important benchmark for future research into how stars evolve and die.

The study is published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Source: University of Copenhagen.