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An incredibly bright flash that appeared in the night sky in February was the result of a star straying too close to a supermassive black hole, meeting its untimely end there as it was torn to shreds.
But the rare cosmic event actually happened 8.5 billion light-years from Earth, when the universe was only a third of its current age – and it created more questions so many answers.
The signal from the bright explosion, known as AT 2022cmc, was first picked up by the Zwicky Transient Facility at the California Institute of Technology’s Palomar Observatory on February 11.
When a star is torn apart by the gravitational tidal forces of a black hole, it is called a tidal rupture event. Astronomers have observed such violent events before, but AT 2022cmc is brighter than anything previously discovered. It is also the most distant ever observed.
Astronomers believe that when the black hole engulfed the star, it released a massive amount of energy and sent a jet of material streaking through space at near-lightspeed.
It is likely that AT 2022 cmc appeared so bright in our sky because the jet was pointed directly at Earth, creating what is called a “doppler-boosting” effect.
The discovery could tell more about the growth of supermassive black holes, as well as how they nibble at stars. Two separate studies detailing the event were published Wednesday in the journals Nature Astronomy and Nature.
Typically, gamma-ray bursts, the powerful bursts of X-rays emitted during the collapse of massive stars, account for the brightest flashes in the night sky.
“Gamma-ray bursts are the usual suspects for events like this,” said Nature Astronomy study co-author Dr. Benjamin Gompertz, who led the comparison analysis of gamma-ray bursts for the paper. , in a press release.
“However, however bright they are, there is a limit to the amount of light a collapsing star can produce. Because AT 2022cmc was so bright and lasted so long, we knew something truly gargantuan must power – a supermassive black hole,” said Gompertz, an assistant professor at the University of Birmingham in the UK.
Astronomers used the Star Neutron Interior Composition ExploreR, or NICER, an X-ray telescope on the International Space Station, to analyze the signal.
The researchers determined that AT 2022cmc was “100 times stronger than the strongest gamma-ray burst afterglow” previously recorded, according to Dheeraj Pasham, lead author of the Nature Astronomy study and a researcher at the Kavli Institute for Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Astrophysics and space research.
First, the star was torn to shreds, then pieces of it were pulled into the spinning disk orbiting the black hole’s point of no return.
The extreme X-rays released by the event were created when the jagged star spun a swirling whirlwind of debris as it fell into the black hole.
The Zwicky Transient Facility is one of the largest used to study the universe and spy on unusual cosmic events.
After first detecting the signal, several dozen other ground and space telescopes focused on AT 2022cmc, providing incredibly detailed insight into this rare event.
The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile helped determine its distance from Earth, while the Hubble Space Telescope captured infrared and visible light emitted by the event. The Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array of telescopes in New Mexico picked up radio waves.
Only about 1% of tidal disturbance events result in relativistic jets (or beams traveling at near light speed) that launch plasma and radiation from the poles of a spinning black hole.
“The last time scientists discovered one of these jets was over a decade ago,” said Michael Coughlin, assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and co-author. principal of the Nature article study, in a press release.
Astronomers still don’t understand why some tidal disturbance events create these jets, while others don’t – but it’s possible the black hole has to spin particularly quickly to create a jet in the first place.
Observing more events like this could reveal how black holes launch such powerful jets into space, researchers say.
“Astronomy is changing rapidly,” said Igor Andreoni, postdoctoral associate in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Maryland, College Park, and co-lead author of the Nature paper study, in a statement. “Scientists can use AT 2022cmc as a model to know what to look for and find more disturbing events from distant black holes.”
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