For the first time, researchers have been able to track a black hole tearing a star apart and then throwing material into space in the form of a jet. Over the course of a decade, an international team of astronomers were able to observe the different phases of this tidal disruption event (TDE).
Only a handful of these TDEs are known so the details provided by this new study are very important. As reported in Science, the researchers first observed the event in 2005. It happened in the merger galaxy pair Arp 299, which is located 150 million light-years from us and sports a supermassive black hole 20 million times the mass of our Sun.
“Never before have we been able to directly observe the formation and evolution of a jet from one of these events,” team co-leader Miguel Perez-Torres, of the Astrophysical Institute of Andalusia in Spain, said in a statement.
The first detection took place on January 30, 2005, when astronomers spotted a burst of infrared light coming from the core of one of the two Arp 299 galaxies. A follow-up observation on July 17 of the same year showed a new radio source coming from the nucleus of the galaxy.
“As time passed, the new object stayed bright at infrared and radio wavelengths, but not in visible light and X-rays,” added Seppo Mattila, the other team leader from the University of Turku in Finland. “The most likely explanation is that thick interstellar gas and dust near the galaxy’s center absorbed the X-rays and visible light, then re-radiated it as infrared.”
The team continued studying the system in detail with several different infrared and radio instruments, tracking its evolution over the years. It wasn’t until 2011 that the radio source started to show an elongation, allowing the researchers to establish that the supermassive black hole did indeed create a jet. The jet is expanding into space at about one-quarter of the speed of light.
“Much of the time supermassive black holes are not actively devouring anything, so they are in a quiet state,” Perez-Torres explained. “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.”
The team suspect that there might be many more of these events out there and by looking at the universe in radio and infrared we might be able to find them. A recent analysis shows how the TDEs actually take place, you can read more here.