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For the first time, astronomers have directly imaged the formation and expansion of a fast-moving jet of material ejected when the powerful gravity of a supermassive black hole ripped apart a star that wandered too close to the massive monster.
The scientists tracked the event with radio and infrared telescopes, including the National Science Foundation's Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, in a pair of colliding galaxies called Arp 299. The galaxies are nearly 150 million light-years from Earth. At the core of one of the galaxies, a black hole 20 million times more massive than the Sun shredded a star more than twice the Sun's mass, setting off a chain of events that revealed important details of the violent encounter. The researchers also used observations of Arp 299 made by NASA's Hubble space telescope prior to and after the appearance of the eruption.
Only a small number of such stellar deaths, called tidal disruption events, or TDEs, have been detected. Theorists have suggested that material pulled from the doomed star forms a rotating disk around the black hole, emitting intense X-rays and visible light, and also launches jets of material outward from the poles of the disk at nearly the speed of light.
"Never before have we been able to directly observe the formation and evolution of a jet from one of these events," said Miguel Perez-Torres, of the Astrophysical Institute of Andalucia in Granada, Spain, and an author on a paper describing the finding.
An artist's concept of a tidal disruption event (TDE) that happens when a star passes fatally close to a supermassive black hole, which reacts by launching a relativistic jet. Credit: Sophia Dagnello, NRAO/AUI/NSF
A diagram showing the components of the TDE observed in Arp299B. (Not to scale). The supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy is surrounded by a highly dense medium, and embedded in a dusty torus. Most of the optical and X-ray emissions produced by the event were absorbed, and re-emitted at infrared (IR) wavelengths due to the existence of polar dust. A few months after the detection at IR wavelengths, the TDE was detected at radio wavelengths with the help of a very sensitive array of radio telescopes. Credit: Seppo Mattila, Miguel Pérez-Torres et al. 2018 (Science)