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An unusually close glimpse of a black hole swallowing a wandering star was seen.

20231124 221955 InfinityCosmos
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20231124 221955 InfinityCosmos

Recent observations using multiple NASA telescopes have captured a massive black hole in the act of tearing apart an unfortunate star that ventured too close. Situated approximately 250 million light-years away in the center of another galaxy, this event marks the fifth-closest instance of a black hole destroying a star on record. The aftermath revealed a significant surge in high-energy X-ray light surrounding the black hole, indicating the formation of a scorching structure known as a corona as the star’s material was inexorably drawn towards its demise.


The study, published in the Astrophysical Journal, highlights the unique opportunity these tidal disruption events provide to comprehend the intricate feeding behaviors of black holes and unravel the fate of captured material before complete consumption. NASA’s NuSTAR satellite, with its exceptional sensitivity to these wavelengths, played a crucial role in observing the corona’s formation and evolution during this unprecedented event.


The majority of black holes under scientific scrutiny are enveloped by hot gas, accumulating over extended periods, sometimes spanning millennia, forming disks billions of miles in diameter. In certain instances, these disks outshine entire galaxies. However, the conspicuous event of a single star being torn apart and consumed distinguishes itself, especially around less active black holes. Remarkably, this process unfolds rapidly, typically within weeks or months.


These events serve as a cosmic laboratory, allowing scientists to unravel the intricate interplay of a black hole’s gravity with the surrounding material, showcasing spectacular light displays and unveiling new physical features. Suvi Gezari, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, describes tidal disruption events as a “window into the real-time feeding of a massive black hole lurking in the center of a galaxy.”


A signal of surprising event.


The a new study delves into the event AT2021ehb, occurring in a galaxy housing a black hole 10 million times the mass of our Sun. This colossal disparity is likened to the difference between a bowling ball and the Titanic. During the tidal disruption event, gravitational forces near the black hole exerted more pull on the side of the star facing it, resulting in the star’s elongation into a stretched structure resembling a long noodle composed of hot gas.


Scientists propose that in such events, the gas stream around the black hole collides with itself, creating shock waves and outward flows of gas. This collision generates not only visible light but also non-visible wavelengths like ultraviolet light and X-rays. Subsequently, the material forms a rotating disk around the black hole, akin to water circling a drain, with friction producing low-energy X-rays. Remarkably, the entire sequence of events for AT2021ehb unfolded within a concise timeframe of just 100 days.


The initial detection of the event on March 1, 2021, was credited to the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) at the Palomar Observatory in Southern California. Subsequent investigations involved NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory and the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) telescope, which observes longer X-ray wavelengths than Swift.


Around 300 days post-initial detection, NASA’s NuSTAR commenced observations of the system. The surprise came when NuSTAR identified a corona— a cloud of hot plasma, or gas atoms with stripped electrons. Typically, coronae are associated with jets of gas flowing in opposite directions from a black hole. However, in the case of the AT2021ehb tidal event, no jets were observed, making the corona observation unexpected. Coronae emit higher-energy X-rays than any other part of a black hole, raising questions about the source and heating mechanisms of the plasma.


Yuhan Yao, the lead author of the study and a graduate student at Caltech in Pasadena, California, expressed astonishment at the absence of jets in the X-ray emission during a tidal disruption event. This unique observation suggests the potential to unravel the factors contributing to the formation of jets and coronae. The study aligns with the notion that magnetic fields play a role in corona formation, prompting further investigation into the strengthening of these magnetic fields.


Yao is actively leading an initiative to identify more tidal disruption events through ZTF and subsequently observe them using telescopes such as Swift, NICER, and NuSTAR. Each new observation holds the promise of providing fresh insights and opportunities to validate findings from AT2021ehb and other tidal disruption events. The goal is to expand the understanding of these phenomena by discovering and examining as many occurrences as possible.


An unusually close glimpse of a black hole swallowing a wandering star was seen.

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