This phenomenon is peculiar because the black hole shoots out relativistic jets, rays of matter that travel at close to the speed of light.
Astronomers at the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) have watched a supermassive black hole devour a nearby star and release powerful jets, at the farthest point in the universe so far.
The discovery, dubbed AT2022cmc , came while examining ZTF data with a new method designed to alert astronomers to such rare events in near real time. The findings are published in Nature.
The ZTF, located in San Diego, California, is currently one of the largest transient surveys astronomers use to study the ever-changing universe and is a treasure trove of rare, strange, and unusual events that astronomers often discover by chance. .
“Our new search technique helps us quickly identify rare cosmic events in the ZTF survey data. And because the ZTF and upcoming larger surveys such as Vera Rubin’s LSST scan the sky so frequently, we can now hope to discover a large number of previously undiscovered or rare cosmic events and study them in detail,” said Igor Andreoni, a postdoctoral associate in UMD’s Department of Astronomy and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
a unique event
AT2022cmc is a peculiar case of what is known as a tidal disruption event, or TDE. TDEs occur when a star approaching a black hole is violently torn apart by gravitational tidal forces, similar to how the Moon pulls the tides on Earth, but with greater force. The pieces of the star are then captured in a rapidly spinning disk around the black hole . Eventually, the black hole consumes what’s left of the doomed star in the disk.
In some extremely rare cases, such as AT2022cmc , the supermassive black hole shoots out “relativistic jets” – beams of matter traveling at close to the speed of light – after destroying a star . Discovered in February 2022, astronomers led by Andreoni followed AT2022cmc and observed it with multiple facilities at multiple wavelengths.
“The last time scientists discovered one of these jets was much more than a decade ago,” recalls Michael Coughlin, assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and co-director of the paper. “From the data we have, we can estimate that relativistic jets are launched in only 1% of these destructive events, making AT2022cmc an extremely rare event. In fact, the bright flash from the event is among the brightest ever observed.”
The novel method of data analysis—equivalent to searching through a million pages of data every night—allowed Andreoni and colleagues to perform a rapid analysis of the ZTF data and identify the TDE of AT2022cmc with relativistic jets. They quickly began follow-up observations that revealed an exceptionally bright event across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from X-rays to the millimeter to radio.