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Finding a New Spin on Supermassive Black Holes

UMD Researcher Leads Team That Made Rare Sighting of Luminous Flash After Star Is Torn Apart

By Georgia Jiang

tidal disruption event

A supermassive black hole destroys a star in an artist's depiction of a tidal disruption event. New UMD research provides insight into the ultrabright jets of matter (shown here in pink, purple and white) that in rare instances result from such cataclysms in deep space.

Image courtesy of Carl Knox/OzGrav, ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery, Swinburne University of Technology

What happens to a dying star when it flies too close to a supermassive black hole?

According to University of Maryland astronomer Igor Andreoni, deep-space mayhem ensues: First, the star is shredded by the black hole’s gravitational tidal forces—the same pull the moon exerts on terrestrial seawater, but with far greater strength. Then, pieces of the star are sucked into a swiftly spinning disk orbiting the black hole. Finally, the black hole consumes what remains of the doomed star in the disk. This is what astronomers call a tidal disruption event (TDE).

But in some extremely rare cases, the supermassive black hole launches “relativistic jets”—beams of matter traveling close to the speed of light—after destroying a star. Andreoni, who is a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Astronomy at UMD and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, discovered one such case with his team in the multi-institutional Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) survey in February 2022. The team published its findings about the event named AT2022cmc in the journal Nature last week.

“The last time scientists discovered one of these jets was well over a decade ago,” said Michael Coughlin, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and co-lead on the project. “From the data we have, we can estimate that relativistic jets are launched in only 1% of these destructive events.”

Before AT2022cmc, the only two previously known jetted TDEs were discovered through gamma-ray space missions, which detect the highest-energy forms of radiation produced by these jets. The last such discovery was made in 2012, indicating new methods were required to find more events of this nature. To help address that need, Andreoni and his team implemented a novel “big picture” tactic to find AT2022cmc: ground-based optical surveys, or general maps of the sky without specific observational targets.

Using ZTF, a wide-field sky survey taken by the Samuel Oschin Telescope in California, the team was able to identify and uniquely study the otherwise dormant-looking black hole.

“We developed an open-source data pipeline to store and mine important information from the ZTF survey and alert us about atypical events in real time,” Andreoni said. “The rapid analysis of ZTF data, the equivalent to a million pages of information every night, allowed us to quickly identify the TDE with relativistic jets and make follow-up observations that revealed an exceptionally high luminosity across the electromagnetic spectrum, from the X-rays to the millimeter and radio.”

Follow-up observations with many observatories confirmed that AT2022cmc was fading rapidly, and the Very Large Telescope in Chile revealed that AT2022cmc was 8.5 billion light years away.

Hubble Space Telescope optical/infrared images and radio observations from the Very Large Array observatory in New Mexico pinpointed the location of AT2022cmc with extreme precision. The researchers believe that AT2022cmc was at the center of a galaxy that is not yet visible because the light from AT2022cmc outshone it, but future space observations with Hubble or James Webb Space telescopes may unveil the galaxy when the transient eventually disappears.

It is still a mystery why some TDEs launch jets while others do not seem to. From their observations, Andreoni and his team concluded that the black holes in AT2022cmc and other similarly jetted TDEs are likely spinning rapidly, powering the extremely luminous jets. This suggests that a rapid black hole spin may be one necessary ingredient for jet launching—an idea that brings researchers closer to understanding the physics of supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies billions of light years away.

“Astronomy is changing rapidly,” Andreoni said. “More optical and infrared all-sky surveys are now active or will soon come online. Scientists can use AT2022cmc as a model for what to look for and find more disruptive events from distant black holes. This means that more than ever, big data mining is an important tool to advance our knowledge of the universe.”



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