The mysterious ray of light is a distant black hole swallowing a star

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An extremely bright flash appeared in the night sky in February as a result of a star straying too close to a supermassive black hole, untimely ending up there as it was ripped to pieces.

But the rare cosmic event actually happened 8.5 billion light-years from Earth, when the new universe was a third of its present age — and it raised more questions than it answered.

The signal from the glowing explosion, known as AT 2022cmc, was first picked up by Zwicky . Temporary Facility at the California Institute of Technology’s Palomar Observatory on February 11.

This graphic shows what a tidal disruption event might look like in space.

When a star is torn apart by the gravitational tidal forces of a black hole, it is called a tidal disruption event. Astronomers have observed such intense events before, but AT 2022cmc is brighter than any previously detected. It is also the farthest distance ever observed.

Astronomers believe that when the black hole swallowed the star, it released a huge amount of energy and sent a jet of matter that swept through space at nearly the speed of light.

It is likely that AT 2022cmc appears very bright in our sky because the jet is directed towards Earth, creating what is known as a “Doppler enhancement” effect.

This discovery could reveal more about the growth of supermassive black holes, as well as how they eat stars. Two separate studies detailing the event have been published in journals astronomy and Nature on Wednesday.

Usually, gamma-ray bursts, the powerful X-rays released when massive stars collapse, account for the brightest rays in the night sky.

Study co-author Dr Benjamin Gompertz, who led the comparative analysis of gamma-ray bursts for the paper, said: “Gamma-ray bursts are often suspects for events like these. like this.

“However, no matter how bright, the amount of light a collapsing star can produce is only that much. Because AT 2022cmc is so bright and long-lived, we knew there must be something really massive to power it – a supermassive black hole,” said Gompertz, assistant professor at the University of Birmingham in the UK. UK said.

Different light emissions are produced during the tidal discontinuity event.

Astronomers used ExplorerR, or NICER, an X-ray telescope on the International Space Station, to analyze the signal.

The researchers identified AT 2022cmc as “100 times more powerful than the most powerful gamma-ray burst” previously recorded, according to Dheeraj Pasham, lead study author of the Nature Astronomy paper and a scientist Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Kavli Institute. Astrophysics and cosmology.

First, the star is torn to pieces, and then its pieces are pulled into the rotating disk around the black hole’s point of no return.

The intense X-rays emitted by this event were produced when the star was torn apart creating a whirlpool of debris as it fell into the black hole.

The Zwicky Temporary Facility is one of the largest used to study the universe and monitor unusual cosmic events.

After first detecting the signal, dozens of other ground- and space-based telescopes focused on AT 2022cmc, providing an incredibly detailed view of 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 the infrared and visible light emitted by the event. . The Karl G. Jansky Very Large telescope array in New Mexico picked up radio waves.

Only about 1% of tidal disruption events result in relativistic jets (or beams traveling at close to the speed of light) ejecting plasma and radiation from the poles of a rotating black hole.

“The last time scientists detected one of these rays was more than a decade,” said Michael Coughlin, assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and study co-author of the Nature paper. previous century.

Astronomers still don’t understand why some tidal disruption events produce these jet streams, while others do not — but it’s possible that the black hole needs to spin especially fast to produce the jet stream. this ray from the very beginning.

According to the researchers, further observations of events like this could reveal how black holes eject such powerful plumes of gas through space.

“Astronomy is changing rapidly,” Igor Andreoni, a postdoctoral fellow in the astronomy department at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a study co-author of the Nature paper, said in a statement. declare. “Scientists can use AT 2022cmc as a model for what to look for and find more disruptive events from distant black holes.”


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