NASA Gets Unusually Close Glimpse of Black Hole Snacking on Star
A disk of hot gas swirls around a black hole in this illustration. Some of the gas came from a star that was pulled apart by the black hole, forming the long stream of hot gas on the right, feeding into the disk. These events are formally known as tidal disruption events, or TDEs. It can take just a matter or weeks or months from the destruction of the star to the formation of the disk. The gas gets hotter the closer it gets to the black hole, but the hottest material can be found above the black hole. This hottest material is cloud of plasma (gas atoms with their electrons stripped away) known as a corona. Most TDEs that result in the formation of a corona also produce jets of material that spew into space away from the black hole at its poles. A TDE called AT2021ehb is the first confirmed example of a corona forming without jets in a tidal disruption event. The observation of AT2021ehb makes it possible for scientists to study the formation of jets and coronae separately. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists may be able to understand more complex black hole feeding behaviors.

A star was torn apart by a black hole that was too close. It was the fifth-closest example of a black hole destroying a star to be seen.

Astronomers saw a rise in high-energy X-ray light around the black hole once the star had been completely torn apart. The hot structure above the black hole was formed as the stellar material was pulled toward its doom.

The event's proximity provided an unprecedented view of the corona's formation and evolution according to a new study published in the Astrophysical Journal.

The work shows how the destruction of a star by a black hole can be used to better understand what happens to material that's captured by one of these monsters before it's completely devoured.

A lot of black holes that scientists can study are surrounded by hot gas that has accumulated over many years. These disks shine brighter than the rest of the universe. A single star being torn apart and consumed is something that stands out.

The process can take a few weeks or months. Astronomers can tease apart how the black hole's gravity manipulates the material around it, creating incredible light shows and new physical features, because of the observability of tidal disruption events.

Suvi Gezari is an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute. They allow us to see the feeding of a massive black hole in the center of a galaxy.

When a star wanders too close to a black hole, the intense gravity will stretch the star out until it becomes a long river of hot gas, as shown in this animation. The gas is then whipped around the black hole and is gradually pulled into orbit, forming a bright disk. Credit: Science Communication Lab/DESY

There is a surprising signal.

About 10 million times the mass of the Sun, the AT2021ehb event took place in a galaxy with a central black hole. The side closest to the black hole was pulled harder than the side furthest away, stretching the whole thing apart and leaving nothing but hot gas.

Scientists think that a black hole causes a stream of gas to collide with itself. This is thought to create shock waves and outward flows of gas that cause visible light and other wavelengths not visible to the human eye. The material settles into a disk that rotates around a black hole with low energy X-rays coming from it. The series of events took place over 100 days.

The event was first spotted on March 1, 2021. It was studied by NASA's Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory and theNICER Telescope.

NuSTAR began observing the system around 300 days after the event was first spotted. The corona, a cloud of hot plasma, or gas atoms with their electrons stripped away, is usually seen with jets of gas that flow in opposite directions from a black hole.

The corona observation was unexpected due to the lack of jets. The coronae emit higher-energy X-rays than any other part of a black hole.

"We've never seen a tidal disruption event with X-ray emission like this without a jet present, and that's really amazing because it means we can potentially disentangle what causes jets and what causes coronae," said Yuhan Yao, a graduate student at Caltech. The observations of AT2021ehb are in agreement with the idea that magnetic fields have something to do with how the corona forms, and we want to know what's causing that magnetic field to get so strong.

There is an effort to look for more tidal disruption events and to observe them with telescopes. There are new opportunities to confirm what has been seen in AT2021ehb and other tidal disruption events. We want to find as many as possible.

The Astrophysical Journal has more information on The Tidal Disk Disruption Event AT2021ehb. There is a document titled "10847/1538-4357/ac898a".

Journal information: Astrophysical Journal