A Black hole ripped apart a star emitting flash equivalent to the light of more than 1000 trillion suns. This marked the first time such a jet was observed in the visible light region of the electromagnetic spectrum, also referred as the optical wavelength.
An unexpected burst of energy propelled out of the heart of a far-off galaxy, intense enough to be seen from 8.5 billion light-years away, was an occurrence not observed in more than a decade. The flash was initially discovered by the Zwicky Transient Facility, a study of the entire night sky carried out from the Palomar Observatory in California. It produced a burst of light equivalent to more than 1,000 trillion suns.
“On Valentine’s Day this year, we found a source that was puzzling. It was just weird! ” The principal author of one of two papers detailing the event, Igor Andreoni of the University of Maryland, told The Verge. “And weird is good in science. It means it’s something you can learn from.”
Astronomers quickly turned their telescopes toward the burst to observe it in X-ray, radio, and other wavelengths. This took place over a short period of time. It resembled a gamma-ray burst, a sort of brilliant flash typically observed by gamma-ray or X-ray telescopes, and was extremely bright. But an optical telescope had picked up on this one.
Astronomers came to the conclusion that the flash’s extreme brightness had to have come from a star being torn apart. A star had strayed too near the supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy, and the gravitational forces had torn it apart. “It can completely rip apart the star. It’s literally pulled and stretched until it can’t stand together anymore,” Andreoni explained. Astronomers have observed scores of these so-called tidal disruption occurrences over the past few years.
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This specific event was exceptional in that it generated a powerful jet of energy and material was ejected from the black hole’s poles almost at the speed of light. “We don’t know why, but sometimes a very powerful jet of material is launched when the star is disrupted,” Andreoni said. Due to its direct direction toward Earth, which makes it appear brighter and more visible across a wider range of the electromagnetic spectrum, this jet is estimated to have been particularly luminous.
Astronomers need telescopes like the Zwicky Transient Facility, which continuously scan as much of the sky as possible and alert users to any unexpected changes in brightness, to detect remarkable transient phenomena like these. To find the most intriguing objects, however, this mountain of data needs to be refined because hundreds of brightness variations are detected every night. Andreoni’s team searches through this data to discover extremely quick occurrences in the optical wavelength.
A supernova or the merger of two neutron stars could possibly be the cause of abrupt variations in brightness. In order to fully comprehend the particular event that caused the flash, more observations are required. For instance, a supernova brightens over a few weeks, which is incredibly quick by astronomical standards. But after a few hours or days, this specific occurrence illuminated even more quickly than that. It became urgent and of immediate importance as a result.
The group alerted the scientific community about this flare and urged researchers using radio and X-ray telescopes to observe it as well. Data on the event were given by 21 telescopes in all. “When all the pieces of the puzzle were acquired and put together, this picture emerged which was just astonishing,” Andreoni said. “We were not expecting to find such a rare source, and definitely not in the optical.”
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Only about 1% of the stars that are annihilated by black holes appear to produce incredibly strong jets, but it is still unclear why. The star’s energy is transformed into light when it is split apart and its constituent parts are drawn inward toward the black hole. According to one theory, the black hole’s magnetic field and spin could combine to cause material to burst out of its poles, much like a paint tube that has been squeezed until material shoots out of either end.
“We’re talking about thousands of times the mass of the Earth that is pulled apart and spun up and launched at close to the speed of light. It’s a really unique opportunity to study something that is impossible to reproduce on Earth,” Andreoni said.
This marked the first time such a jet was observed in the visible light region of the electromagnetic spectrum, also referred as the optical wavelength. In the past, jets from black holes had been found by observing radio waves, gamma rays, and X-rays.
This demonstrates that looking in the optical range could be a valuable technique to spot these extraordinary events in the future and provides astronomers with information on the environment surrounding the black hole, indicating that it is not that dense because it allowed optical light to get through.
Greater flexibility in telescope design and planning is also being driven by the need for telescopes to react swiftly to such events. The number of researchers applying for time on telescopes like Hubble and James Webb is far greater than what can be accommodated. Therefore, every last minute of observation time is filled to the fullest extent feasible and is methodically planned out years in advance. However, there is also a requirement for telescopes that can react to uncommon events in a matter of hours or perhaps minutes.
Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope only sporadically contribute to this type of research since it is challenging to quickly and safely shift the orientation of a space-based telescope. However, recently constructed ground-based telescopes, such as the GROWTH-India telescope or the MASTER network, are experts at scanning the sky for gamma-ray bursts and moving quickly and autonomously to view them.
Additionally, human intervention is always an option. “Sometimes you literally have to call people up and say, ‘Hey, can you please point the telescope at these or those coordinates?’” stated Andreoni. stated Andreoni. In other situations, researchers submit requests via online platforms to conduct observations during convenient times. The question of how telescopes might react to these fleeting but crucially scientific events is becoming more and more prominent.
This advance in black hole observations, according to Andreoni, was only possible because of the global collaboration of scientists using various telescopes and the quick response times of those telescopes. “This was extremely important for this kind of discovery. If we couldn’t do it with any telescope, we would have not realized that we were sitting on such a big discovery.”