Scientists image supermassive black hole devouring a star

Event gave scientists unique opportunity to study the jets emitted by galaxies' central black holes.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Oct 01, 2018
An international team of scientists has, for the first time, directly imaged a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy devour a star.

The event occurred in one of two colliding galaxies, known as ARP 299, almost 150 million light years away. Located at the core of its host galaxy, the black hole is 20 million times more massive than the Sun. It devoured a star more than two times as massive as the Sun, setting off a chain of violent events.

Astronomers using the William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands initially detected a rush of infrared emissions coming from one of the colliding galaxies' cores in January 2005. Six months later, using the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), they found radio emissions coming from the same location.

ARP 299 has been dubbed a "supernova factory" because of the high number of supernova explosions that take place in that galaxy. When the initial infrared burst was detected, astronomers though its source was a supernova.

In 2011, when radio emissions from the site first appeared elongated, scientists recognized the phenomenon as a jet traveling in one direction rather than a supernova.

Jets are produced by active supermassive black holes that draw in and eventually devour surrounding material, such as stars, that cross their event horizons, beyond which nothing, even light, can escape. As the black holes suck in material, they emit very fast jets of particles.

Most supermassive black holes are quiet and not devouring anything. Finding one that is active and catching it in the act of tearing apart a star provides scientists with the opportunity to study these jets' formation and evolution.

The act of a supermassive black hole eating a star is known as a tidal disruption event (TDE). Though thought to be rare, these events may be more common than astronomers initially thought.

"Tidal disruption events can provide us with a unique opportunity to advance our understanding of the formation and evolution of jets in the vicinities of these powerful objects," noted Miguel Perez-Torres of the Astrophysical Institute of Andalusia in Granada, Spain.

For the recent study, a team of 36 scientists representing 26 institutions worldwide observed this event with radio and infrared telescopes, including VLBA.

"Never before have we been able to directly observe the formation and evolution of a jet from one of these events,"Perez-Torres emphasized.

To increase their resolving power and allow observation of the jet in detail, team scientists used multiple radio-telescope antennas placed thousands of miles apart over long periods of time.

They also observed the site in the infrared using NASA's Spitzer space telescope and the Nordic Optical Telescope on the Canary Islands.

An article detailing the study has been published in the journal Science.

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