Astronomers See Distant Eruption as Black Hole Destroys Star

For the first time, astronomers have directly imaged the formation and expansion of a fast-moving jet of material ejected when the powerful gravity of a supermassive black hole ripped apart a star that wandered too close to the cosmic monster.

The scientists tracked the event with radio and infrared telescopes, including the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), in a pair of colliding galaxies called Arp 299, nearly 150 million light-years from Earth. At the core of one of the galaxies, a black hole 20 million times more massive than the Sun shredded a star more than twice the Sun’s mass, setting off a chain of events that revealed important details of the violent encounter.

Only a small number of such stellar deaths, called tidal disruption events, or TDEs, have been detected, although scientists have hypothesized that they may be a more common occurrence. Theorists suggested that material pulled from the doomed star forms a rotating disk around the black hole, emitting intense X-rays and visible light, and also launches jets of material outward from the poles of the disk at nearly the speed of light.

“Never before have we been able to directly observe the formation and evolution of a jet from one of these events,” said Miguel Perez-Torres, of the Astrophysical Institute of Andalusia in Granada, Spain.

The first indication came on January 30, 2005, when astronomers using the William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands discovered a bright burst of infrared emission coming from the nucleus of one of the colliding galaxies in Arp 299. On July 17, 2005, the VLBA revealed a new, distinct source of radio emission from the same location.

“As time passed, the new object stayed bright at infrared and radio wavelengths, but not in visible light and X-rays,” said Seppo Mattila, of the University of Turku in Finland. “The most likely explanation is that thick interstellar gas and dust near the galaxy’s center absorbed the X-rays and visible light, then re-radiated it as infrared,” he added. The researchers used the Nordic Optical Telescope on the Canary Islands and NASA’s Spitzer space telescope to follow the object’s infrared emission.

Continued observations with the VLBA, the European VLBI Network (EVN), and other radio telescopes, carried out over nearly a decade, showed the source of radio emission expanding in one direction, just as expected for a jet. The measured expansion indicated that the material in the jet moved at an average of one-fourth the speed of light. Fortunately, the radio waves are not absorbed in the core of the galaxy, but find their way through it to reach the Earth.

These observations used multiple radio-telescope antennas, separated by thousands of miles, to gain the resolving power, or ability to see fine detail, required to detect the expansion of an object so distant. The patient, years-long data collection rewarded the scientists with the evidence of a jet.

Most galaxies have supermassive black holes, containing millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun, at their cores. In a black hole, the mass is so concentrated that its gravitational pull is so strong that not even light can escape. When those supermassive black holes are actively drawing in material from their surroundings, that material forms a rotating disk around the black hole, and superfast jets of particles are launched outward. This is the phenomenon seen in radio galaxies and quasars.

Such events may have been more common in the distant Universe, so studying them may help scientists understand the environment in which galaxies developed billions of years ago.

Mattila and Perez-Torres led a team of 36 scientists from 26 institutions around the world in the observations of Arp 299. They published their findings in the 14 June online issue of the journal Science. Data from the NSF’s Very Large Array (VLA) and Green Bank Telescope (GBT) were used for some of this work.

Asymmetric Structure in Supermassive Black Hole at Milky Way’s Center

The supermassive black hole candidate at the center of our Galaxy (associated with the radio source Sagittarius A*) is a prime candidate for studying the physical phenomena associated with accretion on to a supermassive black hole.

Sgr A* is thought to accrete at an extremely low rate; analogous situations in X-ray binary stars suggest that a jet may be present, making it challenging to formulate a fully self-consistent model that simultaneously explains its spectrum, its variability, its size and its shape.

Because Sgr A* is by far the closest supermassive black hole, its expected angular size (the shadow cast from its event horizon) is the largest of any known black hole candidate, making it a prime target for studies using very long baseline interferometry at mm wavelengths, which are capable of reaching spatial resolutions comparable to the expected shadow size.

CfA astronomer Shep Doeleman was a member of a team of twenty-two astronomers that used a combination of three widely separated millimeter telescope facilities, the Very Long Baseline Array, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, and the Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano, to try to image the Sgr A* shadow. Their observations were taken in May of 2015 over the course of one evening, and the data from all the telescopes were analyzed to ascertain the geometry.

The scientists found some evidence for an asymmetric shape – a tiny extension that seems to protrude only a few AU from the central source (one astronomical unit is the average distance of the Earth from the Sun). This preliminary result could be due to scattering of the radiation by interstellar material, but it might also be associated with the black hole. Other observers have reported spotting some similar asymmetries, but the picture remains uncertain. The new result is a step forward, however, and future observations will try to refine and extend the current conclusions.

Alma Finds A Swirling, Cool Jet That Reveals A Growing, Supermassive Black Hole

A Chalmers-led team of astronomers have used the Alma telescope to make the surprising discovery of a jet of cool, dense gas in the centre of a galaxy located 70 million light years from Earth. The jet, with its unusual, swirling structure, gives new clues to a long-standing astronomical mystery — how supermassive black holes grow.

galaxy NGC 1377

A team of astronomers led by Susanne Aalto, professor of radio astronomy at Chalmers, has used the Alma telescope (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) to observe a remarkable structure in the centre of the galaxy NGC 1377, located 70 million light years from Earth in the constellation Eridanus (the River). The results are presented in a paper published in the June 2016 issue of the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

“We were curious about this galaxy because of its bright, dust-enshrouded centre. What we weren’t expecting was this: a long, narrow jet streaming out from the galaxy nucleus,” says Susanne Aalto.

The observations with Alma reveal a jet which is 500 light years long and less than 60 light years across, travelling at speeds of at least 800,000 kilometres per hour (500,000 miles per hour).

Most galaxies have a supermassive black hole in their centres; these black holes can have masses of between a few million to a billion solar masses. How they grew to be so massive is a long-standing mystery for scientists.

A black hole’s presence can be seen indirectly by telescopes when matter is falling into it — a process which astronomers call “accretion.” Jets of fast-moving material are typical signatures that a black hole is growing by accreting matter. The jet in NGC 1377 reveals the presence of a supermassive black hole. But it has even more to tell us, explains Francesco Costagliola (Chalmers), co-author on the paper.

“The jets we usually see emerging from galaxy nuclei are very narrow tubes of hot plasma. This jet is very different. Instead it’s extremely cool, and its light comes from dense gas composed of molecules,” he says.

The jet has ejected molecular gas equivalent to two million times the mass of the Sun over a period of only around half a million years — a very short time in the life of a galaxy. During this short and dramatic phase in the galaxy’s evolution, its central, supermassive black hole must have grown fast.

“Black holes that cause powerful narrow jets can grow slowly by accreting hot plasma. The black hole in NGC1377, on the other hand, is on a diet of cold gas and dust, and can therefore grow — at least for now — at a much faster rate,” explains team member Jay Gallagher (University of Wisconsin-Madison).

The motion of the gas in the jet also surprised the astronomers. The measurements with Alma are consistent with a jet that is precessing — swirling outwards like water from a garden sprinkler.

“The jet’s unusual swirling could be due to an uneven flow of gas towards the central black hole. Another possibility is that the galaxy’s centre contains two supermassive black holes in orbit around each other,” says Sebastien Muller, Chalmers, also a member of the team.

The discovery of the remarkable cool, swirling jet from the centre of this galaxy would have been impossible without Alma, concludes Susanne Aalto.

“Alma’s unique ability to detect and measure cold gas is revolutionising our understanding of galaxies and their central black holes. In NGC 1377 we’re witnessing a transient stage in a galaxy’s evolution which will help us understand the most rapid and important growth phases of supermassive black holes, and the life cycle of galaxies in the universe,” she says.