Using telescopes from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and other organisations around the world, astronomers have spotted a rare blast of light from a star being ripped apart by a supermassive black hole. The phenomenon, known as a tidal disruption event, is the closest such flare recorded to date at just over 215 million light-years from Earth, and has been studied in unprecedented detail. The research is published today in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
“Tidal disruption events, where a star experiences what’s known as spaghettification as it’s sucked in by a black hole, are rare and not always easy to study. The team of researchers pointed ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and ESO’s New Technology Telescope (NTT) at a new flash of light that occurred last year close to a supermassive black hole, to investigate in detail what happens when a star is devoured by such a monster.
When an unlucky star wanders too close to a supermassive black hole in the centre of a galaxy, the extreme gravitational pull of the black hole shreds the star into thin streams of material. As some of the thin strands of stellar material fall into the black hole during this spaghettification process, a bright flare of energy is released, which astronomers can detect.
Although powerful and bright, up to now astronomers have had trouble investigating this burst of light, which is often obscured by a curtain of dust and debris. Only now have astronomers been able to shed light on the origin of this curtain.
When a black hole devours a star, it can launch a powerful blast of material outwards that obstructs our view. This happens because the energy released as the black hole eats up stellar material propels the star’s debris outwards.
The discovery was possible because the tidal disruption event the team studied, AT2019qiz, was found just a short time after the star was ripped apart. “Because we caught it early, we could actually see the curtain of dust and debris being drawn up as the black hole launched a powerful outflow of material with velocities up to 10 000 km/s,” says Kate Alexander, NASA Einstein Fellow at Northwestern University in the US. “This unique ‘peek behind the curtain’ provided the first opportunity to pinpoint the origin of the obscuring material and follow in real time how it engulfs the black hole.”
The team carried out observations of AT2019qiz, located in a spiral galaxy in the constellation of Eridanus, over a 6-month period as the flare grew in luminosity and then faded away. “Several sky surveys discovered emission from the new tidal disruption event very quickly after the star was ripped apart,” says Wevers. “We immediately pointed a suite of ground-based and space telescopes in that direction to see how the light was produced.”
Multiple observations of the event were taken over the following months with facilities that included X-shooter and EFOSC2, powerful instruments on ESO’s VLT and ESO’s NTT, which are situated in Chile. The prompt and extensive observations in ultraviolet, optical, X-ray and radio light revealed, for the first time, a direct connection between the material flowing out from the star and the bright flare emitted as it is devoured by the black hole.