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An incredibly bright flash that appeared in the night sky in February was the result of a star coming too close to a supermassive black hole, where it shredded and met its premature end.
But a rare cosmic event that actually occurred 8.5 billion light-years away from Earth when the universe was only a third of its present age has generated more questions than answers.
The signal from the luminescent explosion, known as AT 2022cmc, was first detected on February 11 by the Zwicky Transient Facility at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory.
When a star is torn apart by the gravitational tidal forces of a black hole, it is known as a tidal disruption event. Astronomers have observed such violent events before, but AT 2022cmc is brighter than previously discovered. It is also the most distant spot ever observed.
Astronomers believe that when a black hole engulfed a star, it released a large amount of energy, sending a jet of matter across space at near the speed of light.
The reason AT 2022cmc appeared so bright in our sky is likely because the jet was aimed directly at Earth, creating what is known as the “Doppler boosting” effect.
The discovery may reveal more about the growth of supermassive black holes and how they eat stars. Two separate studies of his detailing the event were published Wednesday in the journals of Nature Astronomy and Nature.
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Gamma-ray bursts, powerful X-ray jets typically emitted when massive stars collapse, explain the brightest flashes in the night sky.
“Gamma-ray bursts are the usual suspects in such events,” said Dr. Benjamin Gompertz, co-author of the Nature Astronomy study, who led the paper’s comparative analysis of gamma-ray bursts, in a statement.
“But no matter how bright a star is, there is a finite amount of light that a collapsing star can produce. AT 2022cmc was so bright and lasted so long that it was capable of producing something truly gigantic: a supermassive. It turns out that a mass black hole must be driving it,” said Gompertz, an assistant professor at the University of Birmingham in the UK.
Astronomers used the International Space Station’s X-ray telescope, the Neutron Star Internal Composition ExplorerR, or NICER, to analyze the signal.
According to Dheeraj Pasham, lead study author of the Nature Astronomy paper and a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Kavli Institute, AT 2022cmc is “100 times more intense than the most intense gamma-ray burst afterglow” previously recorded. Researchers have determined that there is. Astrophysics and space research.
First, the star was shredded, then the fragments were pulled into a spinning disk orbiting the black hole’s point of no return.
The extreme X-rays emitted by this event were created when a shredded star rolled up a swirling vortex of debris as it fell into a black hole.
The Zwicky Transient Facility is one of the largest facilities used to study space and spy on anomalous space events.
After it first detected the signal, dozens of other ground- and space-based telescopes focused on AT 2022cmc, providing an incredibly detailed look at the rare event.
The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile helped determine its distance from Earth. Meanwhile, the Hubble Space Telescope captured infrared and visible light emitted by the event. The Karl G. Jansky Very Large Telescope Array in New Mexico picked up the radio waves.
Only about 1% of tidal disruption events result in relativistic jets (or beams traveling near the speed of light) that eject plasma and radiation from the rotating black hole poles.
Michael Coughlin, assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and co-author of the Nature paper, said in a statement:
Astronomers still don’t understand why some tidal-breaking events produce these jets and others don’t.
Further observations of such events could reveal how black holes fire powerful jets across space, researchers say.
“Astronomy is changing rapidly,” said Igor Andreoni, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Maryland, College Park, and co-first author of the Nature paper, in a statement. “Scientists can use AT 2022cmc as a model to look for what and more destructive events from distant black holes.”
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