This is what it looks like when a black hole snacks on a star

Research paper

While black holes and toddlers don’t seem to have much in common, they are remarkably similar in one aspect: Both are messy eaters, generating ample evidence that a meal has taken place.

But whereas one might leave behind droppings of pasta or splatters of yogurt, the other creates an aftermath of mind-boggling proportions. When a black hole gobbles up a star, it produces what astronomers call a “tidal disruption event.” The shredding of the hapless star is accompanied by an outburst of radiation that can outshine the combined light of every star in the black hole’s host galaxy for months, even years.

In a paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, a team of astronomers led by Sixiang Wen, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona Steward Observatory, use the X-rays emitted by a tidal disruption event known as J2150 to make the first measurements of both the black hole’s mass and spin. This black hole is of a particular type – an intermediate-mass black hole – which has long eluded observation.

“The fact that we were able to catch this black hole while it was devouring a star offers a remarkable opportunity to observe what otherwise would be invisible,” said Ann Zabludoff, UArizona professor of astronomy and co-author on the paper. “Not only that, by analyzing the flare we were able to better understand this elusive category of black holes, which may well account for the majority of black holes in the centers of galaxies.”

By re-analyzing the X-ray data used to observe the J2150 flare, and comparing it with sophisticated theoretical models, the authors showed that this flare did indeed originate from an encounter between an unlucky star and an intermediate-mass black hole. The intermediate black hole in question is of particularly low mass – for a black hole, that is – weighing in at roughly 10,000 times the mass of the sun.

“The X-ray emissions from the inner disk formed by the debris of the dead star made it possible for us to infer the mass and spin of this black hole and classify it as an intermediate black hole,” Wen said.

Dozens of tidal disruption events have been seen in the centers of large galaxies hosting supermassive black holes, and a handful have also been observed in the centers of small galaxies that might contain intermediate black holes. However, past data has never been detailed enough to prove that an individual tidal disruption flare was powered by an intermediate black hole.

“Thanks to modern astronomical observations, we know that the centers of almost all galaxies that are similar to or larger in size than our Milky Way host central supermassive black holes,” said study co-author Nicholas Stone, a senior lecturer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “These behemoths range in size from 1 million to 10 billion times the mass of our sun, and they become powerful sources of electromagnetic radiation when too much interstellar gas falls into their vicinity.”

The mass of these black holes correlates closely with the total mass of their host galaxies; the largest galaxies host the largest supermassive black holes.

“We still know very little about the existence of black holes in the centers of galaxies smaller than the Milky Way,” said co-author Peter Jonker of Radboud University and SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, both in the Netherlands. “Due to observational limitations, it is challenging to discover central black holes much smaller than 1 million solar masses.”

Despite their presumed abundance, the origins of supermassive black holes remain unknown, and many different theories currently vie to explain them, according to Jonker. Intermediate-mass black holes could be the seeds from which supermassive black holes grow.

“Therefore, if we get a better handle of how many bona fide intermediate black holes are out there, it can help determine which theories of supermassive black hole formation are correct,” he said.

Even more exciting, according to Zabludoff, is the measurement of J2150’s spin that the group was able to obtain. The spin measurement holds clues as to how black holes grow, and possibly to particle physics.

This black hole has a fast spin, but not the fastest possible spin, Zabludoff explained, begging the question of how the black hole ends up with a spin in this range.

“It’s possible that the black hole formed that way and hasn’t changed much since, or that two intermediate-mass black holes merged recently to form this one,” she said. “We do know that the spin we measured excludes scenarios where the black hole grows over a long time from steadily eating gas or from many quick gas snacks that arrive from random directions.”

In addition, the spin measurement allows astrophysicists to test hypotheses about the nature of dark matter, which is thought to make up most of the matter in the universe. Dark matter may consist of unknown elementary particles not yet seen in laboratory experiments. Among the candidates are hypothetical particles known as ultralight bosons, Stone explained.

“If those particles exist and have masses in a certain range, they will prevent an intermediate-mass black hole from having a fast spin,” he said. “Yet J2150’s black hole is spinning fast. So, our spin measurement rules out a broad class of ultralight boson theories, showcasing the value of black holes as extraterrestrial laboratories for particle physics.”

In the future, new observations of tidal disruption flares might let astronomers fill in the gaps in the black hole mass distribution, the authors hope.

“If it turns out that most dwarf galaxies contain intermediate-mass black holes, then they will dominate the rate of stellar tidal disruption,” Stone said. “By fitting the X-ray emission from these flares to theoretical models, we can conduct a census of the intermediate-mass black hole population in the universe,” Wen added.

To do that, however, more tidal disruption events have to be observed. That’s why astronomers hold high hopes for new telescopes coming online soon, both on Earth and in space, including the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, also known as the Legacy Survey of Space and Time, or LSST, which is expected to discover thousands of tidal disruption events per year.

Research paper

Internet Explorer Channel Network
News Related

OTHER NEWS

NASA's Deep Space Atomic Clock completes mission

Geared toward improving spacecraft navigation, the technology demonstration operated far longer than planned and broke the stability record for atomic clocks in space. For more than two years, NASA’s Deep ... Read more »

First images of Ganymede as Juno sailed by

The first two images from NASA Juno’s June 7, 2021, flyby of Jupiter’s giant moon Ganymede have been received on Earth. The photos – one from the Jupiter orbiter’s JunoCam ... Read more »

Study finds photosynthesis in Venus' clouds could support life

New data analysis has found that the sunlight filtering through Venus’ clouds could support Earth-like photosynthesis in the cloud layers and that chemical conditions are potentially amenable to the growth ... Read more »

NASA selects 2 missions to study Venus

NASA has selected two new missions to Venus, Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor. Part of NASA’s Discovery Program, the missions aim to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world when it ... Read more »

SwRI scientists confirm decrease in Pluto's atmospheric density

When Pluto passed in front of a star on the night of August 15, 2018, a Southwest Research Institute-led team of astronomers had deployed telescopes at numerous sites in the ... Read more »

Spire Global and SpaceChain announce new partnership

Spire Global has entered into a new partnership with SpaceChain, a global space-as-a-service solutions provider developing the world’s first decentralized satellite infrastructure (DSI). Together, Spire and SpaceChain are launching a ... Read more »

Sounding rocket mission to offer snapshot of Sun's magnetic field

Measuring a magnetic field isn’t so hard if you’re inside of it. Measuring a magnetic field remotely – whether from across a room, across a country, or 93 million miles ... Read more »

Is new finding an asteroid a comet or both

The newest known example of a rare type of object in the Solar System – a comet hidden among the main-belt asteroids – has been found and studied, according to ... Read more »

Unique asteroid holds clues to early Solar System

Set to launch next year, NASA’s Psyche mission marks the first time the agency has set out to explore an asteroid richer in metal than rock or ice. More than ... Read more »

First planet to orbit 3 Stars discovered

In a distant star system – a mere 1,300 light years away from Earth – UNLV researchers and colleagues may have identified the first known planet to orbit three stars. ... Read more »

AAC Clyde Space to supply core avionics to Arctic weather satellite

AAC Clyde Space, a leading New space company, has been selected by OHB Sweden to deliver core avionics worth approx. 797 kEUR (approx. 8.2 MSEK) to ESA’s Arctic Weather Satellite. ... Read more »

Urban mining for metals flashes forward

In what should be a win-win-win for the environment, a process developed at Rice University to extract valuable metals from electronic waste would also use up to 500 times less ... Read more »

NASA TV coverage set for Russian film production mission launch

NASA will provide coverage of a Tuesday, Oct. 5 launch that will carry a Russian cosmonaut, actress, and film producer to the International Space Station, where they will film segments ... Read more »

Study finds evidence of the origin of metal-rich near-earth asteroids

Little is known about the population of metal-rich Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs), their number, origin, and relationship with meteorites found on Earth. A new paper by Planetary Science Institute Associate Research ... Read more »

Dust collected from a speeding asteroid analyzed with massive accelerator

It’s not uncommon for scientists to bring interesting objects thousands of miles to Argonne National Laboratory for study. But it’s fair to say that the latest of these to land ... Read more »

Russian crew blast off to film first movie in space

A Russian actress and director blasted off to the International Space Station on Tuesday in a historic bid to best the United States to film the first movie in orbit. ... Read more »

Join our free online Space2Connect event

The first ESA virtual conference devoted entirely to telecommunications will take place between 11 October and 14 October. “Space2connect” will explore and discuss the emerging space-based solutions to address the ... Read more »

NASA software helps weather forecasting around the globe

The 2020 hurricane season was one of the most active on record, and 2021’s is shaping up to be as well, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). ... Read more »

New model simplifies orbital radar trade-off studies for environmental monitoring

Skoltech researchers Alessandro Golkar and Ksenia Osipova, and former Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) student Giuseppe Cataldo (now working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center) have developed, within the framework ... Read more »

First Copernicus satellite exceeds design working life

This week marks seven years since the very first satellite that ESA built for the European Union’s Copernicus programme started delivering data to monitor the environment. The Sentinel-1A satellite has ... Read more »

Phantom Space announces agreement to build and launch 72 satellite constellation for Ingenu

Phantom Space Corporation, a space transportation technology development and manufacturing company, has announced that they signed an agreement with Ingenu, provider of one of the leading Industrial Internet of Things ... Read more »

Researchers reveal a wobbly and flared Milky Way disk based on LAMOST-Gaia data

Astronomers, from National Astronomical Observatories of Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC), Shanghai Astronomical Observatory of CAS and Nanjing University, revealed a wobbly and flared Milky Way disk based on LAMOST-Gaia ... Read more »

Building a home in the sky

After initial solid steps, upcoming missions will ensure operation of China’s Tiangong space station. China plans to conduct its Shenzhou XIII manned space flight this month, sending three astronauts to ... Read more »

'Mini Psyches' give insights into mysterious metal-rich near-earth asteroids

Metal-rich near-Earth asteroids, or NEAs, are rare, but their presence provides the intriguing possibility that iron, nickel and cobalt could someday be mined for use on Earth or in Space. ... Read more »

Trading space: ESA bolsters European business

ESA’s orbiting laboratory, OPS-SAT, has hosted the first-ever stock trade in space on Sept 30. The successful experiment required developers at Europe’s leading online broker flatexDEGIRO to think far outside ... Read more »

Euclid telescope ready for extreme space environment

ESA’s Euclid mission has reached a new milestone in its development with successful testing of the telescope and instruments showing that it can operate and achieve the required performance in ... Read more »

Scientists recreate cosmic reactions to unlock astronomical mysteries

Experiments will give scientists a closer look at how exploding stars create world’s heaviest elements. How do the chemical elements, the building blocks of our universe, get built? This question ... Read more »

'Planet confusion' could slow Earth-like exoplanet exploration

When it comes to directly imaging Earth-like exoplanets orbiting faraway stars, seeing isn’t always believing. A new Cornell study finds that next-generation telescopes used to see exoplanets could confuse Earth-like ... Read more »

NASA selects partners for Geostationary and Extended Observations Sounder Phase A Studies

NASA has selected Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corporation of Boulder, Colorado and L3Harris Technologies Inc. of Fort Wayne, Indiana, for a Geostationary and Extended Observations (GeoXO) Sounder (GXS) Phase A ... Read more »

NASA's Lucy science mission will fly by eight asteroids

NASA plans to launch its Lucy spacecraft from Florida on Oct. 16 to fly by eight asteroids starting in 2025, marking the first time scientists will gain close-up views of ... Read more »

Earth from Space: Mackenzie River, Canada

The Copernicus Sentinel-1 mission takes us over the Mackenzie River, a major river system in the Canadian boreal forest. Its basin is the largest in Canada and is the second ... Read more »

BepiColombo swings by Mercury ahead of 2025 orbital insertion

The joint European-Japanese BepiColombo mission captured this view of Mercury on 1 October 2021 as the spacecraft flew past the planet for a gravity assist manoeuvre. The image was taken ... Read more »

Lucy mission prepares for launch to Trojan asteroids

NASA has tested the functions of Lucy, the agency’s first spacecraft to study Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, filled it with fuel, and is preparing to pack it into a capsule for ... Read more »

Investigating the potential for life around the galaxy's smallest stars

When the world’s most powerful telescope launches into space this year, scientists will learn whether Earth-sized planets in our ‘solar neighborhood’ have a key prerequisite for life – an atmosphere. ... Read more »

NASA confirms Roman Mission's flight design in milestone review

NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope has successfully passed its critical design review, signaling that all design and developmental engineering work is now complete. “After seeing our extensive hardware testing ... Read more »

Earth is dimming due to climate change

Warming ocean waters have caused a drop in the brightness of the Earth, according to a new study. Researchers used decades of measurements of earthshine – the light reflected from ... Read more »

NASA awards Sun-Sky Scanning Sun Photometers for the AERONET Project

NASA has awarded a contract for Sun-Sky Scanning Sun Photometers to CIMEL Electronique of Paris, France to support the AErosol RObotic NETwork (AERONET). This is a firm-fixed-price, indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity ... Read more »

Space technology rocketing upwards, reports IDTechEx

Space. The final frontier, the first step in a journey just beginning, or a horrifying void matched only by your deep fear of the ocean? Whatever your feelings on space, ... Read more »

Extending LIGO's reach into the cosmos

Since LIGO’s groundbreaking detection, in 2015, of gravitational waves produced by a pair of colliding black holes, the observatory, together with its European partner facility Virgo, has detected dozens of ... Read more »

Optically generated quantum fluids of light reveal exotic matter-wave states in condensed matter physics

Researchers from Skoltech and the University of Southampton, U.K., used all-optical methods to create an artificial lattice whose nodes house polaritons – quasiparticles that are half-light and half-matter excitations in ... Read more »