Astronomers find a massive black hole that shredded a passing star and emitted X-ray flashes afterwards.
Most of the giant black holes in the universe are in a state of dormancy, meaning they do actively chomp on space matter and often stay asleep. But sometimes when a wandering star comes too close to them, they cannot hold themselves back and go into a feeding frenzy.
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A group of astronomers have caught a supermassive black hole indulged in the act of stellar slaughtering and out bursting X-rays. The shredded star moved around the black hole before being eaten up by the beast. Then, it bounced around within the walls of a newly formed accretion disk of the black hole, led to emitting X-rays flashes during the event.
"Most tidal disruption events don't emit much in the high-energy X-ray band. But there have been at least three known events that have, and this is the first and only such event that has been caught at its peak.” Lead researcher Erin Kara from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and University of Maryland said.
The supermassive black hole, named Swift J1644+57, was first detected by NASA’s Swift satellite and was followed up many satellites around the world including Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and NASA's Suzaku satellite for further investigation.
The star was torn apart by Swift J1644+57’s intense tidal pull some 3.9 billion years ago and slowly but surely the puffy clouds of this shredded star fall into the previouly dormant black hole’s accretion disk which is more turbulent and thicker than stable disks around other massive black holes.
Researchers used high-energy, X-ray echoes emitted from the consumed star to detect this tidal disruption event which was impossible to observe otherwise. The event took place in an area where gravity completely takes over and nothing – not even the light- can escape. Researchers calculated small delays in the arrival time of X-ray signals which were reflected from iron atoms in the whirling gas inside the accretion disk and applied it to map out the inner part of the disk.
"While we don't yet understand what causes X-ray flares near the black hole, we know that when one occurs we can detect its echo a couple of minutes later, once the light has reached and illuminated parts of the flow,” Kara explained. "This technique, called X-ray reverberation mapping, has been previously used to explore stable disks around black holes, but this is the first time we've applied it to a newly formed disk produced by a tidal disruption.”
The finding can help answer many questions about the activities of black holes lying in the centers of giant galaxies such as when and why black holes become dormant. They will also help astronomers understand how supermassive black holes grow to their enormous sizes - up to several million times the mass of the sun.
Co-author Chris Reynolds from University of Maryland says. “Understanding the black hole population in general is important. Black holes have played an important role in how galaxies evolved. So even if they're dormant now, they weren't before.
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