The unfortunate star was completely torn to pieces, resulting in a record-breaking bright explosion that was emitted by more than 1,000 trillion suns combined!
Earlier this year, astronomers detected an unusually bright source of light in the night sky. Multiple telescopes, including the Very Large Telescope (VLT), have been pointed at the mysterious source by researchers from around the world. And guess what? The signal likely comes from a jet of matter (jet) shooting out of the supermassive black hole at nearly the speed of light. It turns out that this jet is the product of a black hole that suddenly began devouring a nearby star, releasing a huge amount of energy.
Tidal disturbance has occurred
Stars that accidentally approach a black hole are pulled apart by massive tidal forces. This event is also called b Tidal disturbance events (TDE). In about one percent of cases, beams of plasma and radiation are emitted from the poles of a spinning black hole. In 1971, black hole pioneer John Wheeler described the concept of spurting TDEs as “a tube of toothpaste squeezed tightly in the middle, causing matter to be ejected from both ends”.
This animation shows matter falling from a star into a black hole at the center of a distant galaxy, creating “jets” of matter and radiation. Some of the star’s material is drawn in and orbits around the black hole, forming the disk shown in the image above. On rare occasions (like this one), matter and radiation exit the black hole’s poles. In the case of AT2022cmc, these “jets” were detected by several telescopes, including the VLT, which identified them as the closest example of an event of this type.
These kinds of phenomena are extremely rare and do not reveal themselves easily, which makes them difficult to study. “We’ve only seen a few TDEs so far, and they are still very strange and poorly understood events,” said researcher Niall Tanvir. So astronomers are constantly looking for these extreme phenomena to understand exactly how the jets form and why they only occur in a very small number of TDEs.
As part of this research, many telescopes regularly scan the sky for signs of short-lived—and often intense—events, which can then be examined in greater detail by telescopes such as the VLT. In February of this year, astronomers discovered the new mysterious source of visible light. Named AT2022cmc, the event looked like a gamma-ray burst – the most powerful source of light in the universe. The prospect of witnessing this rare phenomenon prompted astronomers to activate telescopes from around the world to take a closer look at the source of the mysterious light.
Fresher and shinier than ever
A total of 21 telescopes have collected all kinds of light – from high-energy gamma rays to radio waves. Several theories have been discussed as to what could be the cause of the bright flash. But in the end, the only scenario that matches the data is a rare TDE, in which an unfortunate star is swallowed by a hungry black hole. When the stellar matter then falls into the black hole, it releases a bright burst of energy that researchers can detect. Of the few flowing TDEs detected so far, AT2022cmc is the outermost and brightest.
The source is about 8.5 billion light-years away – more than half the distance across the universe. AT2022cmc’s light began its journey when the universe was only a third of its current age. How could such a distant event appear so brightly in our sky? The team thinks the outflowing jet may be pointing directly at the ground, making the signal appear brighter than if the jet was heading in a different direction.
This is not the only special thing. “The few TDEs observed so far have been observed with telescopes that detect high-energy gamma rays and X-rays,” Birley said. “But AT2022cmc is the first TDE detection in visible light.” This means that there seems to be another way to detect TDEs with aircraft and to investigate these rare events in the extreme environments around black holes.
The observations provide more insight into supermassive black holes. This could shed light on how black holes feed and grow. In addition, the search for TDEs continues unabated. And there may be more waiting to be discovered in the near future. In the coming years, more powerful telescopes capable of detecting TDEs will be commissioned. “We expect to find more TDEs in the future,” says researcher MatteoLucchini. “Then we may discover exactly how black holes release the observed extremely powerful jets.”
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