A 'Hungry' Black Hole Could Reveal the Origins of the Space Giants

And it could also yield new clues for understanding dark matter.
Chris Young
An illustration of a tidal disruption event.NASA/JPL-Caltech

The annihilation of a star might help uncover the elusive origins of black holes. In a new paper, researchers from the University of Arizona detailed their analysis of the gargantuan aftermath left behind after a black hole ate a star, a press release reveals.

The so-called "tidal disruption event" was recorded via the enormous burst of radiation that emanated from its location, outshining the combined light of every star in the black hole's host galaxy.

Black hole is caught 'devouring a star'

In their paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, the astronomers described how the X-rays emitted by a tidal disruption event called J2150 allowed them to make the first measurements of the black hole's mass and spin. "The fact that we were able to catch this black hole while it was devouring a star offers a remarkable opportunity to observe what otherwise would be invisible," explained Ann Zabludoff, one of the co-authors on the paper. What's more, the researchers say that by analyzing the specific black hole — which is categorized as an intermediate black hole — as it destroyed the star, they were able to understand more about the little-known intermediate black hole type.

To conduct their study, the University of Arizona researchers re-analyzed X-ray data from the J2150 flare observation and compared it with new sophisticated theoretical models. By doing so, they showed that the flare did originate from an encounter between a star and an intermediate-mass black hole. This is the first time that data has shown a tidal disruption event powered by an intermediate black hole.

Shedding light on the origins of black holes

The origins of supermassive black holes are a mystery, though many theories aim to explain how they come into existence. Some scientists believe that intermediate-mass black holes could evolve to become supermassive black holes over the course of thousands of years. "Therefore, if we get a better handle of how many bona fide intermediate black holes are out there, it can help determine which theories of supermassive black hole formation are correct," said co-author Peter Jonker from Radboud University.

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The new study might also shed light on how black holes grow as analysis of the space object's spin shows that it doesn't rotate as fast as other black holes. Lastly, it also provides a platform for future studies on dark matter, as hypothetical dark matter particles called ultralight bosons might be demonstrably interacting with the space giant. "If those particles exist and have masses in a certain range, they will prevent an intermediate-mass black hole from having a fast spin," said study co-author Nicholas Stone. "Yet J2150’s black hole is spinning fast. So, our spin measurement rules out a broad class of ultralight boson theories, showcasing the value of black holes as extraterrestrial laboratories for particle physics." In the future, the University of Arizona researchers say they will be able to analyze a wealth of new data from new telescopes such as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, also known as the Legacy Survey of Space and Time, which has the goal of discovering thousands of new tidal disruption events per year.

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