On February 11, astronomers saw a distant flash of light that seemed to come from a source as bright as a quadrillion suns. They alerted other scientists to the event, and several telescopes quickly swung around to focus on the flash. Now, two teams of researchers have identified its source: a black hole feasting in the distant universe.
Black holes are notoriously dark; their gravitational pull is so strong that not even light can escape from their event horizons. In this case, the bright flash was caused by the energy with which the black hole consumed its meal, a star that had passed too close to the voracious compact object. Details of this bright party were published today in newspapers from Nature and natural astronomy.
“This particular event was 100 times stronger than the strongest gamma-ray burst afterglow,” Dheeraj Pasham, an MIT astrophysicist and lead author of the Nature Astronomy paper, said in a press release. “It was something extraordinary.”
Every once in a while, an unlucky star gets caught in the inescapable gravity of a black hole. The spinning black hole tears the star’s limb from the metaphorical limb, until the star material is just a superheated whirlpool around the black hole. These feedings can give off a lot of light. AT 2022cmc is the brightest and most distant tidal disturbance event known to date; its source is a supermassive black hole about 8.5 billion light-years away.
Tidal disturbance events are useful for astrophysicists; they can reveal how fast black holes spin and the rate at which giant objects feed. They can also reveal how supermassive black holes grow and shape the galaxies that house them.
Sometimes, and astronomers think they now know exactly how often, the black hole spews superheated jets of matter into space. The energized jets are accelerated almost to the speed of light and can be very difficult to see unless they are pointed directly at us. Which was the case for 2022cmc.
Because the black hole’s jet is pointed toward Earth, it appears much brighter to us than it would otherwise. This helped both research teams observe the light source, despite its extraordinary distance.
Twenty-one telescopes around the world observed the jet in X-ray, radio, optical and ultraviolet wavelengths. This is the first time that a jet-tidal disturbance event has been observed at optical wavelengths, the region of the electromagnetic spectrum that the human eye can see.
The X-ray emissions fluctuated considerably during the observations. The researchers suspect this may be due to a period when the black hole accumulated (meaning collected) a ton of matter around itself.
By comparing the light from this event to other light events in the cosmos, the teams determined that a jet tidal disturbance event was the only possible culprit.
“The universe is really full of surprises and we have to be ready to catch them,” Andreoni said. “Developing more tools and new technologies is surely a path to discovery, but also perseverance and truly a desire to be raptured by heaven at any time when you least expect it.”
Pasham added that further surveys of the sky could reveal more tidal disturbances in the future, which could then be examined by space observatories like the Webb Telescope.
Tools like the LSST camera, which will be world’s largest digital camera when mounted at the Rubin Observatory in Chile, will be a remarkable resource for regularly imaging the night sky and all the dynamic events that take place there.
More: Behold: The first image of our galaxy’s central black hole
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