Black hole ripping a star apart: Rare phenomenon observed by astronomers

The new observation is one of only four instances in which a rare relativistic jetted TDE has been detected by astronomers.
Chris Young
A3 Tidal Disruption Graphic.

Scientists observed a rare tidal disruption event (TDE), or a burst of energy released when a star is decimated by a supermassive black hole.

The specific event they observed and analyzed is so rare that it has only been seen three other times throughout history.

Their analysis of the cataclysmic event could help to improve our understanding of the properties of the black holes located at the heart of most of the galaxies in the observable universe, a press statement reveals.

Scientists observe the aftermath of a black hole devouring a star

The scientists, who presented their findings in a paper in the journal Nature Astronomy, detected a TDE named AT2022cmc.

They made observations in the optical range and at other wavelengths using several different telescopes and found that these were consistent with emissions from a luminous jet emitted when a star passes too close to a massive black hole and is devoured in a cataclysmic event.

Most TDEs are observed in the relatively nearby universe, though this one was observed in a galaxy approximately 12.4 billion light-years away. The scientists said it would not have been visible were it not for its incredible brightness.

They also observed extreme energetic forces and rapid changes in brightness indicative of a rare relativistic jetted TDE, making it one of only four that have been observed and reported to date.

Uncovering the mysteries of the cosmos

TDEs allow astronomers the opportunity to study the evolution of black holes, which occurs as the massive cosmic objects gradually accumulate (or accrete) matter over millions of years.

If a star gets too close to a black hole, its material can fall onto the black hole's accretion disk, which can lead to powerful jets of matter shooting from the black hole. In very rare cases, TDEs can produce a relativistic jet that travels close to the speed of light. Such events are very rare and are poorly understood by the global scientific community.

As such, the new observations allowed the team of researchers to gain a better understanding and shed new light on an extremely rare mechanism of black holes.

They used their observations to model the event, simulating a scenario in which a star similar in size and mass to the Sun was disrupted by a relatively small black hole. Surprisingly, they found that the inferred magnetic field was quite low.

This goes against a widely-held theory that relativistic jets require high magnetic fields to exist. Ultimately, the scientists concluded that their findings show that roughly 1 percent of TDEs have relativistic jets — showing that they are, indeed, extremely rare.

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