Astronomers observe for the first time a monster black hole eating a star and throwing an enormous blast. The study relies on 10 years of observations.
The new research relies on observations from a group of well-known telescopes. This may help astronomers locate black holes in the future.
As the black hole rips the star apart, the star’s material forms a rotating disk. The disk glows brightly before it falls into the black hole.
Scientists observed an infrared flare for the first time in January 2005 using highly specialized telescopes. They analyzed a pair of colliding galaxies called Arp 299, nearly 150 million light-years from Earth.
Researchers continued watching the scene for the next 10 years, using the 10 telescopes that make up the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), the Spitzer Space Telescope, and others. These telescopes spread across thousands of miles can work together to essentially act like a giant radio telescope.
“As time passed, the new object stayed bright at infrared and radio wavelengths, but not in visible light and X-rays,” co-lead author Seppo Mattila, of the University of Turku in Finland, said in a statement. “The most likely explanation is that thick interstellar gas and dust near the galaxy’s center absorbed the X-rays and visible light, then re-radiated it as infrared,” Mattila said.
Supermassive Black Hole
The researchers estimated that this jet resulted from a supermassive black hole. The black hole was 20 million times the mass of the sun. It lies at the core of one of the pairs of colliding galaxies. And it was in the act of shredding a star that was more than twice the sun’s mass. “Never before have we been able to directly observe the formation and evolution of a jet from one of these events,” Pérez-Torres said in a statement.
Most galaxies, if not all, have supermassive black holes. They can pull matter into them and form a huge disc around their outsides as they do. But for the most part, those black holes stay quiet, thus, not devouring anything.
So, the violent events can be an unparalleled insight into what actually happens around a black hole.
“Much of the time, however, supermassive black holes are not actively devouring anything, so they are in a quiet state,” Perez-Torres said. “Tidal disruption events can provide us with a unique opportunity to advance our understanding of the formation and evolution of jets in the vicinities of these powerful objects,” he added.
However, based on the event’s intrinsic brightness and how much energy the team thinks went into heating the surrounding dust, the researchers estimate that it was the death of a star between 2 and 7 solar masses and unleashed a thousand times more radiation than a standard core-collapse supernova.
Thumbnail image: An artist’s representation of a black hole eating a star and spewing a jet. Credit: Sophia Dagnello, NRAO/AUI/NSF