A supermassive black hole violently tears apart a star and launches a relativistic jet towards Earth

A supermassive black hole violently tears apart a star and launches a relativistic jet towards Earth

Tidal disturbance event illustration

Illustration of a Tidal Disturbance Event (TDE). Credit: Carl Knox – OzGrav, ARC Center of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery, Swinburne University of Technology

Rare observation of a luminous jet spewed by a supermassive black hole

Astronomers Discover Bright Optical Flare Caused By Dying Star’s Encounter With Supermassive

black hole
A black hole is a place in space where the gravitational field is so strong that not even light can escape. Astronomers classify black holes into three categories based on their size: miniature, stellar, and supermassive black holes. Miniature black holes could have a mass less than that of our Sun and supermassive black holes could have a mass equivalent to billions of our Sun.

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What happens when a dying star flies too close to a supermassive black hole?

Several things happen, according to University of Maryland (UMD) astronomer Igor Andreoni: first, the star is violently ripped apart by the black hole’s gravitational tidal forces—similar to how the Moon pulls tides on Earth but with greater strength. Next, pieces of the star are captured into a swiftly spinning disk orbiting the black hole. Finally, the black hole consumes what remains of the doomed star in the disk. This is what astronomers call a tidal disruption event (TDE).

However, in some extremely rare cases, the supermassive black hole launches “relativistic jets” after destroying a star. These are beams of matter traveling close to the speed of light. Andreoni discovered one such case with his team in the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) survey in February 2022. After the group publicly announced the sighting, the event was named “AT 2022cmc.” The team published its findings on November 30, 2022, in the journal Nature.

“The last time scientists discovered one of these jets was well over a decade ago,” said Michael Coughlin, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and co-lead on the project. “From the data we have, we can estimate that relativistic jets are launched in only 1% of these destructive events, making AT 2022cmc an extremely rare occurrence. In fact, the luminous flash from the event is among the brightest ever observed.”

TDE Emissions Illustration

TDE emissions. Credit: Zwicky Transient Facility/R.Hurt (Caltech/IPAC)

Before AT 2022cmc, the only two previously known jetted TDEs were discovered through gamma-ray space missions, which detect the highest-energy forms of radiation produced by these jets. As the last such discovery was made in 2012, new methods were required to find more events of this nature. To help address that need, Andreoni, who is a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Astronomy at UMD and Zwicky Transient Facility

The Zwicky Transient Facility scans the sky using a state-of-the-art wide-field camera mounted on the Samuel Oschin telescope at the Palomar Observatory in Southern California. Credit: Palomar Observatory/Caltech

Follow-up observations with many observatories confirmed that AT 2022cmc was fading rapidly and the ESO Very Large Telescope revealed that AT 2022cmc was at cosmological distance, 8.5 billion light years away.


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