Black holes are the mess makers of the universe. From spewing out jets as we talked about last week to belching X-ray bubbles and blasting apart star formation, they are basically monsters that come in all sizes. And now, thanks to a wealth of archival data, one messily-eating black hole has been identified. By comparing radio observations taken over decades, high school interns uncovered a galaxy that was brighter in the mid-1990s than it is today. Brighter by a lot.
Further examination of the data over the past several years has revealed the story of a star passing too close to a black hole and getting torn apart – spaghettified – under the force of its gravity. This event shone brightly in the radio and was captured by the Very Large Array. Digging through even older data from the 1980s revealed that the object, blandly designated J1533+2727, was 500 times brighter in the mid-1980s than it is today.
According to study lead author Vikram Ravi: This is the first discovery of a relativistic Tidal Disruption Event (TDE) candidate in the relatively nearby universe, showing that these radio-bright [events] may be more common than we thought before.
Collaborator Jean Somalwar adds: TDEs basically turn flashlights onto these extreme regions at the centers of galaxies that we would not otherwise be able to see.
This work appears in The Astrophysical Journal.
Put another way, a black hole ate a star that flared out a massive amount of light before falling into the black hole’s event horizon, and that light lit up rarely seen regions of another galaxy. If only other messy eaters were so scientifically useful.
Caltech press release