The screams of a star being ripped apart

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Science  01 Jan 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6268, pp. 30-31
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad5541

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Closely coupled, ubiquitous, and complex, accretion and outflow are the yin and yang of astrophysics (1). The processes occur on all length and time scales, from the formation of the first galaxies in the early universe to the formation of stars in our Milky Way. Compact objects such as white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes provide some of the most spectacular examples of these entangled phenomena. Quasars, for instance, are supermassive black holes with masses as large as 10 billion times that of the Sun that lurk in the centers of galaxies and are extraordinarily efficient accretors as revealed through luminous x-ray emission as well as producers of narrowly collimated relativistic jets that can extend millions of light years away from the black hole (see the figure). On page 62 of this issue, van Velzen et al. (2) report the discovery of a transient relativistic jet flowing from a supermassive black hole system that captured and destroyed a passing star. The discovery further confirms the coupled nature of accretion and outflow. Most important, the discovery shows that these events short-circuit the extraordinarily long evolutionary time scale of quasars, creating a laboratory for the study of accretion and outflow physics.