Cosmic fireworks as distant star ‘squeezed’ by massive black hole

One of the most violent events in the Universe has been recorded in fine detail for the first time.

A distant star, which wandered too close to a supermassive black hole, was “squeezed like a toothpaste tube” jetting gases out of the end and sparking a light show so bright it was spotted on Earth.

These ‘cosmic fireworks’ have only been spotted twice before by astronomers and never at such as distance.

Dr Daniel Perley, a reader in astrophysics at Liverpool John Moores University, picks up the story: “This event - AT2022cmc - didn't seem to match any known type of celestial source: most known types of explosions are either much faster, much slower, or much bluer in colour than inferred from the data,” he said.

Piecing together the observations in a paper published in Nature today (Wednesday, November 30), Perley, together with a team of collaborators led by Igor Andreoni, of the University of Maryland, described the sighting as an “extraordinary type of tidal disruption event” after a star similar to own Sun entered the gravity field of its galaxy's central black hole.

“Usually, intense gravitational forces tear the star apart, transforming it into a superheated disk of gas which eventually disappears into the black hole,” explained Perley.

“However, in this case, something happened which ejected matter almost at the speed of light back into space.  The way we describe it is as a toothpaste tube being squeezed suddenly in the middle causing the contents to squirt matter out of both ends. Then, as the material collides with surrounding gas, the intense optical, radio, and X-ray emission is produced.”

All told, the event – a whopping 8 billion light years from Earth – was not only massively violent but   fantastically luminous, greatly exceeding any known supernova. 

“Such events are extraordinarily rare - the last was more than a decade ago,” confirmed Dr Perley, of LJMU's Astrophysics Research Institute.

Astronomers are particularly excited this time because whereas past events have been identified via gamma-ray measurements on satellites, this is the first ground-based observation and the data gathered is far broader, allowing the team to model radiation and other processes.

But as Dr Andreoni explains the phenomenon still has many mysteries to unlock such as how massive the black hole was, just what type of galaxy it lived it, and exactly how it managed to accelerate some of the infalling material to such a high velocity.  Mysteries also remain as to why other disrupted stars don't produce the same type of ultra-fast jet as seen in AT 2022cmc.

The discovery was made possible thanks to the Zwicky Transient Facility, in California, the LJMU Liverpool Telescope, the Very Large Array, New Mexico and the Neil Gehrels Swift Space Observatory.


This research was presented in a paper titled “A very luminous jet from the disruption of a star by a massive black hole” to appear in Nature (doi: 10.1038/s41586-022-05465-8)

The team is composed of Igor Andreoni (Joint Space-Science Institute, University of Maryland, USA [JSI/UMD]; Department of Astronomy, University of Maryland, USA [UMD]; Astrophysics Science Division, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center [NASA/GSFC], USA), Michael W. Coughlin (School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Minnesota, USA), Daniel A. Perley (Astrophysics Research Institute, Liverpool John Moores University, UK), Yuhan Yao (Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy, California Institute of Technology, USA [Caltech]), Wenbin Lu (Department of Astrophysical Sciences, Princeton University, USA), S. Bradley Cenko (JSI/UMD; NASA/GSFC), Harsh Kumar (Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, India [IIT/Bombay]), Shreya Anand (Caltech), Anna Y. Q. Ho (Department of Astronomy, University of California, Berkeley, USA [UCB]; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, USA [LBNL]; Miller Institute for Basic Research in Science, USA), Mansi M. Kasliwal (Caltech), Antonio de Ugarte Postigo (Université Côte d’Azur, Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur, France), Ana Sagués-Carracedo (The Oskar Klein Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden [OKC]), Steve Schulze (OKC), D. Alexander Kann (Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia, Glorieta de la Astronomia, Spain [IAA-CSIC]), S. R. Kulkarni (Caltech), Jesper Sollerman (OKC), Nial Tanvir (Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester, UK), Armin Rest (Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, USA [STScI]; Department of Physics and Astronomy, The Johns Hopkins University, USA), Luca Izzo (DARK, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), Jean J. Somalwar (Caltech), David L. Kaplan (Center for Gravitation, Cosmology and Astrophysics, Department of Physics, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, USA), Tomás Ahumada (UMD), G. C. Anupama (Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, India [IIA]), Katie Auchettl (School of Physics, University of Melbourne, Australia; ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions; Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA), Sudhanshu Barway (IIA), Eric C. Bellm (DIRAC Institute, University of Washington, USA), Varun Bhalerao (IIT/Bombay), Joshua S. Bloom (LBNL; UCB), Michael Bremer (Institut de Radioastronomie Millimetrique, France [IRAM]), Mattia Bulla (OKC), Eric Burns (Department of Physics & Astronomy, Louisiana State University, USA), Sergio Campana (INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Brera, Italy), Poonam Chandra (National Centre for Radio Astrophysics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Pune University, India), Panos Charalampopoulos (DTU Space, National Space Institute, Technical University of Denmark, Denmark [DTU]), Jeff Cooke (Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery, Swinburne University of Technology, Hawthorn, Australia [OzGrav]; Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, Swinburne University of Technology, Australia [CAS]), Valerio D’Elia (Space Science Data Center - Agenzia Spaziale Italiana, Italy), Kaustav Kashyap Das (Caltech), Dougal Dobie (OzGrav; CAS), Jose Feliciano Agüí Fernández (IAA-CSIC), James Freeburn (OzGrav; CAS), Cristoffer Fremling (Caltech), Suvi Gezari (STScI), Matthew Graham (Caltech), Erica Hammerstein (UMD), Viraj R. Karambelkar (Caltech), Charles D. Kilpatrick (Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics, Northwestern University, USA), Erik C. Kool (OKC), Melanie Krips (IRAM), Russ R. Laher (IPAC, California Institute of Technology, USA [IPAC]), Giorgos Leloudas (DTU), Andrew Levan (Department of Astrophysics, Radboud University, The Netherlands), Michael J. Lundquist (W. M. Keck Observatory, USA), Ashish A. Mahabal (Caltech; Center for Data Driven Discovery, California Institute of Technology, USA), Michael S. Medford (UCB; LBNL), M. Coleman Miller (JSI/UMD; UMD), Anais Möller (OzGrav; CAS), Kunal Mooley (Caltech), A. J. Nayana (Indian Institute of Astrophysics, India), Guy Nir (UCB), Peter T. H. Pang (Nikhef, The Netherlands; Institute for Gravitational and Subatomic Physics, Utrecht University, The Netherlands), Emmy Paraskeva (IAASARS, National Observatory of Athens, Greece; Department of Astrophysics, Astronomy & Mechanics, University of Athens, Greece; Nordic Optical Telescope, Spain; Department of Physics and Astronomy, Aarhus University, Denmark), Richard A. Perley (National Radio Astronomy Observatory, USA), Glen Petitpas (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, Cambridge, USA), Miika Pursiainen (DTU), Vikram Ravi (Caltech), Ryan Ridden-Harper (School of Physical and Chemical Sciences — Te Kura Matu, University of Canterbury, New Zealand), Reed Riddle (Caltech Optical Observatories, California Institute of Technology, USA), Mickael Rigault (Université de Lyon, France), Antonio C. Rodriguez (Caltech), Ben Rusholme (IPAC), Yashvi Sharma (Caltech), I. A. Smith (Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii, USA), Robert D. Stein (Caltech), Christina Thöne (Astronomical Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic), Aaron Tohuvavohu (Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Toronto, Canada), Frank Valdes (National Optical Astronomy Observatory, USA), Jan van Roestel (Caltech), Susanna D. Vergani (GEPI, Observatoire de Paris, PSL Research University, France; Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris, France), Qinan Wang (STScI), Jielai Zhang (OzGrav; CAS).




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