Astronomers have made the most distant sighting of a black hole tearing apart a star and feasting on it, thanks to a jet of stellar “remnants” hurled directly at Earth.
Because the jet is aimed directly at Earth, the violent destruction of the star by this black hole, which astronomers call a tidal disturbance event (TDE), was observable in visible light. The discovery could therefore signal a new way to observe these extreme events that are usually only detected in high-energy light, such as gamma rays and X-rays.
DETs occur when stars wander too close to black holes. The black hole tears the star apart with incredibly powerful tidal forces created by its gravitational influence. In about 1% of TDEs, the black hole also shoots jets of plasma and radiation from its poles.
“We’ve only seen a handful of these jet-TDEs and they’re still very exotic and poorly understood events,” said Nial Tanvir, an astronomer at the University of Leicester in the UK and co-author of the news. research. statement (opens in a new tab) from the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which operates some of the telescopes used in the research. “Astronomers are therefore constantly on the lookout for these extreme events to understand how the jets are actually created and why such a small fraction of TDEs produce them.”
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The discovery of this TDE, dubbed AT2022cmc, came in February, when a monitoring telescope, the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) in California, sent out an alert about an unusual source of visible light, which ESO very large telescope (VLT) in the Atacama Desert region of northern Chile then jumped in to examine. It’s a common dynamic for astronomers: survey telescopes like the ZTF pan across the sky to detect signs of fleeting and extreme events, which more focused telescopes like the VLT can track, observing in greater detail.
AT2022cmc first looked like a gamma burst (GRB), the most powerful source of electromagnetic radiation in the known universe, the origins of which remain unknown. The opportunity to observe one of these rare and mysterious bursts of light prompted astronomers to train a variety of telescopes on AT2022cmc, including the VLT, which studied the event using its X-ray spectrograph instrument. -shooter. A total of 21 telescopes observed AT2022cmc in different wavelengths of light, including the The Hubble Space Telescope and the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) X-ray instrument aboard the international space station.
The wealth of data revealed two strange observations. First, the source of AT2022cmc was located at an unprecedented distance of Earth and the light began its journey when the 13.8 billion year old universe was only a third of his current age. Second, the event was not a gamma-ray burst.
“Things seemed pretty normal for the first three days,” said Dheeraj Pasham, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and first author of one of the studies. statement (opens in a new tab).
“Then we looked at it with an X-ray telescope, and what we found was that the source was too bright,” he said of the NICER observations, noting that the signal remained. 100 times more powerful than the afterglow of any gamma. burst seen so far. “It was something extraordinary.”
Worldwide, a total of 21 telescopes observed AT2022cmc in different wavelengths of light, from high-energy gamma rays to low-energy radio waves. Then, astronomers could compare that data to observations of other violent events, like collapsing stars and powerful cosmic explosions called kilonovas.
The only scenario that matched the light profile recorded by these telescopes was the rare case where a TDE jet – containing matter moving 99.99% along the speed so light — points directly at Earth.
“Because the relativistic jet is pointing towards us, it makes the event much brighter than it would otherwise appear, and visible over a wider stretch of the electromagnetic spectrum,” Giorgos Leloudas, astronomer at DTU Space in Denmark and co- author on the new research, said in the ESO statement.
That said, the jet is still quite bright — so bright that astronomers have calculated the black hole eats up about half the mass of the sun every year, Pasham said, adding that the volume suggests researchers have spotted the event. very early. “A lot of this tidal disturbance happens very early on, and we were able to capture this event early on, a week after the black hole started feeding on the star.”
The distance of this TDE from Earth is not the only record aspect of AT2022cmc. Previously, jet TDEs such as this have only been spotted in high-energy types of radiation like gamma rays and X-rays: this is the first time that one of these star-killing events violent is observed in optical light.
As such, observing AT2022cmc in optical light could open up a whole new way to detect these reactive TDEs across the vastness of space, allowing for deeper study of these rare events and black holes. who trigger them.
The research is described in of them (opens in a new tab) papers (opens in a new tab) published Wednesday, November 30 in the journal Nature.
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