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An unusually bright flash in the night sky in February was caused by a star that got too close to a supermassive black hole and unfortunately ended up being ripped apart.
But this rare cosmic event actually occurred 8.5 billion light-years from Earth, when the universe was only a third of its current age — and it raises more questions than answers.
On February 11, the Zwicky Transient Facility at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory received the first signal from a glowing explosion, called AT 2022cmc.
When a star is torn apart by the gravitational tidal forces of a black hole, it’s called a tidal disruption event. Astronomers have observed such violent events before, but AT 2022cmc is brighter than anything previously discovered. This is also the farthest distance ever observed.
Astronomers believe that when a black hole devours a star, it releases massive amounts of energy and ejects a jet of material through space at nearly the speed of light.
AT 2022cmc appears so bright in our sky most likely because the jet is pointed directly at Earth, creating an effect known as “Doppler enhancement”.
The discovery could reveal more about the growth of supermassive black holes, and how they gobble up stars. Two separate studies detailing the event were published Wednesday in the journals Nature Astronomy and Nature.
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Typically, gamma-ray bursts, powerful jets of X-rays released when massive stars collapse, explain the brightest flashes in the night sky.
“Gamma-ray bursts are often the suspects for such events,” Nature Astronomy study co-author Dr. Benjamin Gompertz, who led the paper’s comparative analysis of gamma-ray bursts, said in a statement.
“However, as bright as they are, collapsing stars can only produce so much light. Because AT 2022cmc is so bright and lasts so long, we know something really massive must be powering it—a supermassive black holes,” said Gompertz, an assistant professor at the University of Birmingham, UK.
Astronomers used the X-ray telescope Neutron Star Interior Composition ExploreR, or NICER, on the International Space Station to analyze the signal.
Dheeraj Pasham, lead study author of the Nature Astronomy paper and a research scientist at MIT’s Kavli Institute, said the researchers determined that AT 2022cmc is “100 times more powerful than the most powerful gamma-ray burst afterglow ever recorded.” Physics and space research.
First, the star is ripped to pieces, and then its pieces are pulled into a disk that orbits the black hole of no return.
The extreme X-rays released by the event were produced when the shredded star swirled into a debris vortex as it fell into the black hole.
The Zwicky Transient Facility is one of the largest facilities used to study the universe and detect unusual cosmic events.
After it first detected the signal, dozens of other ground- and space-based telescopes focused on AT 2022cmc, providing incredibly detailed observations of this rare event.
The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile helped determine its distance from Earth, while the Hubble Space Telescope captured the infrared and visible light emitted by the event. Radio waves received by the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico.
Only about 1 percent of TDEs cause relativistic jets (or beams of light moving at close to the speed of light) to emit plasma and radiation from the poles of a rotating black hole.
“Scientists last spotted one of these jets more than a decade ago,” Michael Coughlin, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and co-lead study author of the Nature paper, said in a statement.
Astronomers still don’t understand why some TDEs create these jets and others don’t — but it’s possible that a black hole needs to spin especially fast to produce jets in the first place.
According to the researchers, observing more such events may reveal how black holes fire such powerful jets through space.
“Astronomy is changing rapidly,” Igor Andreoni, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Astronomy at UM College College and co-lead study author of the Nature paper, said in a statement. “Scientists can use AT 2022cmc as a model to look for and discover more destructive events from distant black holes.”
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