A Black Hole Consumed a Star and Released the Light of a Trillion Suns

A star is being consumed by a distant supermassive black hole. Astronomers call this a tidal disruption event (TDE). As the black hole rips apart the star, two jets of material moving with almost the speed of light are launched in opposite directions. One of the jets was aimed directly at Earth. Image credit: Carl Knox (OzGrav, ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery, Swinburne University of Technology)

When a flash of light appears somewhere in the sky, astronomers notice. When it appears in a region of the sky not known to host a stellar object that’s flashed before, they really sit up and take notice. In astronomical parlance, objects that emit flashing light are called transients.

Earlier this year, astronomers spotted a transient that flashed with the light of a trillion Suns.

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A Black Hole is Hurling a jet of Material at its Neighboring Galaxy

Artist view of an active supermassive black hole. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

It’s been a banner time for black hole research! In recent months, astrophysicists have announced the discovery of the most powerful gamma-ray burst ever recorded (due to the formation of a black hole), a monster black hole in our cosmic backyard, the frame-dragging effects of a binary black hole, and the remains of the 2017 Kilonova event (spoiler alert: it was a black hole). And with the help of citizen scientists, a team of astronomers recently discovered a unique black hole in a galaxy roughly one billion light-years away that’s hurling a relativistic jet at another galaxy.

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Astronomers Find a Black Hole That was Somehow Pushed Over Onto its Side

Artist impression of the X-ray binary system MAXI J1820+070 containing a black hole (small black dot at the center of the gaseous disk) and a companion star. A narrow jet is directed along the black hole spin axis, which is strongly misaligned from the rotation axis of the orbit. Image produced with Binsim (credit: R. Hynes).

The planets in our Solar System all rotate on axes that roughly match the Sun’s rotational axis. This agreement between the axes of rotation is the typical arrangement in any system in space where smaller objects orbit a larger one.

But in one distant binary system, the large central object has an axis of rotation tilted about 40 degrees compared to its smaller satellite. This situation is even more strange because the main body isn’t a star but a black hole.

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The Event Horizon Telescope Zooms in on Another Supermassive Black Hole

Credit: M. Janssen, H. Falcke, M. Kadler, E. Ros, M. Wielgus et al.

On April 10th, 2019, the world was treated to the first image of a black hole, courtesy of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). Specifically, the image was of the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) at the center of the supergiant elliptical galaxy known as M87 (aka. Virgo A). These powerful forces of nature are found at the centers of most massive galaxies, which include the Milky Way (where the SMBH known as Sagittarius A* is located).

Using a technique known as Very-Long-Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), this image signaled the birth of a new era for astronomers, where they can finally conduct detailed studies of these powerful forces of nature. Thanks to research performed by the EHT Collaboration team during a six-hour observation period in 2017, astronomers are now being treated to images of the core region of Centaurus A and the radio jet emanating from it.

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Quasars are the Biggest Particle Accelerators in the Universe

Composite image of Centaurus A, showing the jets emerging from the galaxy’s central black hole, together with the associated gamma radiation. © ESO/WFI (Optical); MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al. (Submillimetre); NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al. (X-ray), H.E.S.S. collaboration (Gamma)

We puny humans think we can accelerate particles? Look how proud we are of the Large Hadron Collider. But any particle accelerator we build will pale in comparison to Quasars, nature’s champion accelerators.

Those things are beasts.

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Black Hole Seen Blasting Out Jets at Close to the Speed of Light

MAXI J1820+070 is a binary pair that has one black hole and one star. The black hole is emitting relativistic jets, and Chandra made a movie of it. Image Credit: Chandra X-Ray Observatory

The Chandra X-Ray Observatory has spotted a distant black hole shooting out jets of material, at close to the speed of light. No worries, this beast is about 10,000 light years away from us. It’s more of a spectacle than a danger.

But it’s a spectacle laden with scientific insights.

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How were Supermassive Black Holes Already Forming and Releasing Powerful Jets Shortly After the Big Bang?

A supermassive black hole has been found in an unusual spot: an isolated region of space where only small, dim galaxies reside. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A team of astronomers from South Africa have noticed a series of supermassive black holes in distant galaxies that are all spinning in the same direction. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the past few decades, astronomers have been able to look farther into the Universe (and also back in time), almost to the very beginnings of the Universe. In so doing, they’ve learned a great deal about some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe and their subsequent evolution. However, there are still some things that are still off-limits, like when galaxies with supermassive black holes (SMBHs) and massive jets first appeared.

According to recent studies from the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) and a team of astronomers from Japan and Taiwan provide new insight on how supermassive black holes began forming just 800 million years after the Big Bang, and relativistic jets less than 2 billion years after. These results are part of a growing case that shows how massive objects in our Universe formed sooner than we thought.

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NASA Chooses 4 New Astronomy Space Missions for Additional Study

Hot stars burn brightly in this new image from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer, showing the ultraviolet side of a familiar face. At approximately 2.5 million light-years away, the Andromeda galaxy, or M31, is our Milky Way's largest galactic neighbor. The entire galaxy spans 260,000 light-years across -- a distance so large, it took 11 different image segments stitched together to produce this view of the galaxy next door. The bands of blue-white making up the galaxy's striking rings are neighborhoods that harbor hot, young, massive stars. Dark blue-grey lanes of cooler dust show up starkly against these bright rings, tracing the regions where star formation is currently taking place in dense cloudy cocoons. Eventually, these dusty lanes will be blown away by strong stellar winds, as the forming stars ignite nuclear fusion in their cores. Meanwhile, the central orange-white ball reveals a congregation of cooler, old stars that formed long ago. When observed in visible light, Andromeda's rings look more like spiral arms. The ultraviolet view shows that these arms more closely resemble the ring-like structure previously observed in infrared wavelengths with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Astronomers using Spitzer interpreted these rings as evidence that the galaxy was involved in a direct collision with its neighbor, M32, more than 200 million years ago. Andromeda is so bright and close to us that it is one of only ten galaxies that can be spotted from Earth with the naked eye. This view is two-color composite, where blue represents far-ultraviolet light, and orange is near-ultraviolet light.

Since 1958, the NASA Explorer Program has conducted low-cost missions that were deemed relevant to the goals of the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), particularly where the study of our Sun and the deeper cosmic mysteries are concerned. Recently, the Explorer Program selected four missions that they considered to be well-suited to these goals, two of which will be selected for launch in the coming years.

Consisting of two astrophysics Small Explorer (SMEX) and two Missions of Opportunity (MO) proposals, these missions are designed to study cosmic explosions and the debris they leave behind, as well as monitor how nearby stellar flares may affect the atmospheres of orbiting planets. After detailed evaluations, two of these missions will be selected next year and will take to space sometime in 2025.

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It Takes Two Stars to Make a Gamma Ray Burst

Artist’s impression of gamma-ray burst with orbiting binary star. Credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick

In 1967, NASA scientists noticed something they had never seen before coming from deep space. In what has come to be known as the “Vela Incident“, multiple satellites registered a Gamma-Ray Burst (GRB) that was so bright, it briefly outshined the entire galaxy. Given their awesome power and the short-lived nature, astronomers have been eager to determine how and why these bursts take place.

Decades of observation have led to the conclusion that these explosions occur when a massive star goes supernova, but astronomers were still unsure why it happened in some cases and not others. Thanks to new research by a team from the University of Warwick, it appears that the key to producing GRBs lies with binary star systems – i.e. a star needs a companion in order to produce the brightest explosion in the Universe.

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Superfast Jet of Material Blasted Out From Last Year’s Neutron Star Merger

As the jet from the neutron-star merger event emerged into space, simulated radio images in this artist's conception illustrate its extremely fast motion. Credit: D. Berry, O. Gottlieb, K. Mooley, G. Hallinan, NRAO/AUI/NSF

In August of 2017, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected waves that were believed to be caused by a neutron star merger. This “kilonova” event, known as GW170817, was the first astronomical event to be detected in both gravitational and electromagnetic waves – including visible light, gamma rays, X-rays, and radio waves.

In the months that followed the merger, orbiting and ground-based telescopes around the world have observed GW170817 to see what has resulted from it. According to a new study by an international team of astronomers, the merger produced a narrow jet of material that made its way into interstellar space at velocities approaching the speed of light.

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