When Galaxies Collide, Stars Suffer the Consequences

When galaxies collide, the result is nothing short of spectacular. While this type of event only takes place once every few billion years (and takes millions of years to complete), it is actually pretty common from a cosmological perspective. And interestingly enough, one of the most impressive consequences – stars being ripped apart by supermassive black holes (SMBHs) – is quite common as well.

This process is known in the scientific community as stellar cannibalism, or Tidal Disruption Events (TDEs). Until recently, astronomers believed that these sorts of events were very rare. But according to a pioneering study conducted by leading scientists from the University of Sheffield, it is actually 100 times more likely than astronomers previously suspected.

TDEs were first proposed in 1975 as an inevitable consequence of black holes being present at the center of galaxies. When a star passes close enough to be subject to the tidal forces of a SMBH it undergoes what is known as “spaghetification”, where material is slowly pulled away and forms string-like shapes around the black hole. The process causes dramatic flare ups that can be billions of times brighter than all the stars in the galaxy combined.

Since the gravitational force of black holes is so strong that even light cannot escape their surfaces (thus making them invisible to conventional instruments), TDEs can be used to locate SMBHs at the center of galaxies and study how they accrete matter. Previously, astronomers have relied on large-area surveys to determine the rate at which TDEs happen, and concluded that they occur at a rate of once every 10,000 to 100,000 years per galaxy.

However, using the William Herschel Telescope at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on the island of La Palma, the team of scientists – who hail from Sheffield’s Department of Physics and Astronomy – conducted a survey of 15 ultra-luminous infrared galaxies that were undergoing galactic collisions. When comparing information on one galaxy that had been observed twice over a ten year period, they noticed that a TDE was taking place.

Their findings were detailed in a study titled “A tidal disruption event in the nearby ultra-luminous infrared galaxy F01004-2237“, which appeared recently in the journal Nature: Astronomy. As Dr James Mullaney, a Lecturer in Astronomy at Sheffield and a co-author of the study, said in a University press release:

“Each of these 15 galaxies is undergoing a ‘cosmic collision’ with a neighboring galaxy. Our surprising findings show that the rate of TDEs dramatically increases when galaxies collide. This is likely due to the fact that the collisions lead to large numbers of stars being formed close to the central supermassive black holes in the two galaxies as they merge together.”

The William Herschel Telescope, part of the Isaac Newton group of telescopes, located in the Canary Islands. Credit: ing.iac.es

The Sheffield team first observed these 15 colliding galaxies in 2005 during a previous survey. However, when they observed them again in 2015, they noticed that one of the galaxies in the sample – F01004-2237 – appeared to have undergone some changes. The team them consulted data from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Catalina Sky Survey – which monitors the brightness of astronomical objects (particularly NEOs) over time.

What they found was that the brightness of F01004-2237 – which is about 1.7 billion light years from Earth – had changed dramatically. Ordinarily, such flare ups would be attributed to a supernova or matter being accreted onto an SMBH at the center (aka. an active galactic nucleus). However, the nature of this flare up (which showed unusually strong and broad helium emission lines in its post-flare spectrum) was more consistent with a TDE.

The appearance of such an event had been detected during a repeat spectroscopic observations of a sample of 15 galaxies over a period of just 10 years suggested that the rate at which TDEs happen was far higher than previously thought – and by a factor of 100 no less. As Clive Tadhunter, a Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Sheffield and lead author of the study, said:

“Based on our results for F01004-2237, we expect that TDE events will become common in our own Milky Way galaxy when it eventually merges with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy in about 5 billion years. Looking towards the center of the Milky Way at the time of the merger we’d see a flare approximately every 10 to 100 years. The flares would be visible to the naked eye and appear much brighter than any other star or planet in the night sky.”

Credit: ESA/Hubble, ESO, M. Kornmesser
Artist’s impression depicts a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole surrounded by an accretion disc. Credit: ESA/Hubble, ESO, M. Kornmesse

In the meantime, we can expect that TDEs are likely to be noticed in other galaxies within our own lifetimes. The last time such an event was witnessed directly was back in 2015, when the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (aka. ASAS-SN, or Assassin) detected a superlimunous event four billion light years away – which follow-up investigations revealed was a star being swallowed by a spinning SMBH.

Naturally, news of this was met with a fair degree of excitement from the astronomical community, since it was such a rare event. But if the results of this study are any indication, astronomers should be noticing plenty more stars being slowly ripped apart in the not-too-distant future.

With improvements in instrumentation, and next-generation instruments like the James Webb Telescope being deployed in the coming years, these rare and extremely picturesque events may prove to be a more common experience.

Further Reading: Nature: Astronomy, University of Sheffield

Chandra Spots Two Cosmic Heavy-Hitters at Once

This week, the 229th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) kicked off in Grapevine, Texas. Between Monday and Friday (January 3rd to January 7th), attendees will be hearing presentations by researchers and scientists from several different fields as they share the latest discoveries in astronomy and Earth science.

One of the highlights so far this week was a presentation from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which took place on the morning of Wednesday, January 5th. In the course of the presentation, an international research team showed some stunning images of two of the most powerful cosmic forces seen together for the first time – a supermassive black hole and two massive galaxy clusters colliding.

The galaxy clusters are known as Abell 3411 and Abell 3412, which are located about two billion light years from Earth. Both of these clusters are quite massive, each possessing the equivalent of about a quadrillion times the mass of our Sun. Needless to say, the collision of these objects produced quite the shockwave, which included the release of hot gas and energetic particles.

X-ray image of the collision between Abell 3411 and Abell 3412. Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/R. van Weeren et al.

This was made all the more impressive thanks to the presence of a supermassive black hole (SMBH) at the center of one of the galaxy clusters. As the team described in their paper – titled “The Case for Electron Re-Acceleration at Galaxy Cluster Shocks” – the galactic collision produced a nebulous outburst of x-rays (shown above), which were produced when hot clouds of gas from one cluster plowed through the hot gas clouds of the other.

Meanwhile, the inflowing gas was accelerated outward into a jet-like stream, thanks to the powerful electromagnetic fields of the SMBH. These particles were accelerated even further when they got swept up by the shock waves produced by the collision of the galactic clusters and their massive gas clouds. These streams were detected thanks to the burst of radio waves they released as a result.

By seeing these two major events happening at the same time in the same place, the research team effectively witnessed a cosmic “double whammy”. As Felipe Andrade-Santos of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), and co-author of the paper, described it in a Chandra press release:

“It’s almost like launching a rocket into low-Earth orbit and then getting shot out of the Solar System by a second rocket blast. These particles are among the most energetic particles observed in the Universe, thanks to the double injection of energy.”

Image of radio waves produce by the collision between Abell 3411 and Abell 3412. Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/R. van Weeren et al.

Relying on data obtained from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in India, the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, the Keck Observatory, and Japan’s Subaru Telescope, the team was able to capture this event in the optical, x-ray, and radio wave wavelengths. This not only led to some stunning images, but shed some light on a long-standing mystery in galaxy research.

In the past, astronomers have detected radio emissions coming from Abell 3411 and Abell 3412 using the GMRT. But the origins of these emissions, which reached for millions of light years, was the subject of speculation and debate. Relying on the data they obtained, the research team was able to determine that they are the result of energetic particles (produced by the clouds of hot gas colliding) being further accelerated by galactic shock waves.

Or as co-author William Dawson, of the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in Livermore, California, put it:

“This result shows that a remarkable combination of powerful events generate these particle acceleration factories, which are the largest and most powerful in the Universe. It is a bit poetic that it took a combination of the world’s biggest observatories to understand this.”

Many interesting finds have been shared since the 229th Meeting of the AAS began – like the hunt for the source of a Fast Radio Burst – and many more are expected before it wraps up at the end of the week. These will include the latest results from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), and new and exciting research on black holes, exoplanets, and other astronomical phenomena.

And be sure to check out this podcast from Chandra as well, which talks about the collision between Abell 3411 and 3412 and the cosmic forces it unleashed.

Further Reading: Chandra X-ray Observatory

Hubble Watches Spinning Black Hole Swallow a Star

In 2015, the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (aka. ASAS-SN, or Assassin) detected something rather brilliant in a distant galaxy. At the time, it was thought that the event (named ASASSN-15lh) was a superluminous supernova – an extremely bright explosion caused by a massive star reaching the end of its lifepsan. This event was thought to be brightest supernova ever witnessed, being twice as bright as the previous record-holder.

But new observations provided by an international team of astronomers have provided an alternative explanation that is even more exciting. Relying on data from several observatories – including the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope – they have proposed that the source was a star being ripped apart by a rapidly spinning black hole, an event which is even more rare than a superluminous supernova.

According to the ASAS-SN’s findings – which were published in January of 2016 in Science – the superluminous light source appeared in a galaxy roughly 4 billion light-years from Earth. The luminous source was twice as bright as the brightest superluminous supernova observed to date, and its peak luminosity was 20 times brighter than the total light output of the entire Milky Way.

Credit: ESA/Hubble, ESO, M. Kornmesser
This artist’s impression depicts a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole surrounded by an accretion disc. Credit: ESA/Hubble, ESO, M. Kornmesse

What seemed odd about it was the fact that the superluminous event appeared within a massive, red (i.e. “quiescent”) galaxy, where star formation has largely ceased. This was in contrast to most super-luminous supernovae that have been observed in the past, which are typically located in blue, star-forming dwarf galaxies. In addition, the star (which is Sun-like in size) is not nearly massive enough to become an extreme supernova.

As such, the international team of astronomers – led by Giorgos Leloudas of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and the Dark Cosmology Center in Denmark – conducted follow-up observations using space-based and Earth-based observatories. These included the Hubble Space Telescope, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory and the New Technology Telescope (NTT) at the La Silla Observatory.

With information from these facilities, they arrived at a much different conclusion. As Dr. Leloudas explained in a Hubble press release:

“We observed the source for 10 months following the event and have concluded that the explanation is unlikely to lie with an extraordinary bright supernova. Our results indicate that the event was probably caused by a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole as it destroyed a low-mass star.”

The process is colloquially known as “spaghettification”, where an object is ripped apart by the extreme tidal forces of a black hole. In this case, the team postulated that the star drifted too close to the supermassive black hole (SMBH) at the center of the distant galaxy. The resulting heat and the shocks created by colliding debris led to a massive burst of light – which was mistakenly believed to be a very bright supernova.

Multiple lines of evidence support this theory. As they explain in their paper, this included the fact that over the ten-months that they observed it, the star went through three distinct spectroscopic phases. This included a period of substanial re-brightening, where the star emitted a burst of UV light that accorded with a sudden increase in its temperature.

Combined with the unlikely location and the mass of the star, this all pointed towards tidal disruption rather than a massive supernova event. But as Dr. Leloudas admits, they cannot be certain of this just yet. “Even with all the collected data we cannot say with 100% certainty that the ASASSN-15lh event was a tidal disruption event.” he said. “But it is by far the most likely explanation.”

As always, additional observations are necessary before anyone can say for sure what caused this record-breaking luminous event. But in the meantime, the mere fact that something so rare was witnessed should be enough to cause some serious excitement! Speaking of which, be sure to check out the simulation videos (above and below) to see what such an event would look like:

Further Reading: Hubble Space Telescope

Quasar Light Confirms Consistency Of Electromagnetism Over 8 Billion Years

Back in November, a team of researchers from the Swinburne University of Technology and the University of Cambridge published some very interesting findings about a galaxy located about 8 billion light years away. Using the La Silla Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), they examined the light coming from the supermassive black hole (SMBH) at its center.

In so doing, they were able to determine that the electromagnetic energy coming from this distant galaxy was the same as what we observe here in the Milky Way. This showed that a fundamental force of the Universe (electromagnetism) is constant over time. And on Monday, Dec. 4th, the ESO followed-up on this historic find by releasing the color spectrum readings of this distant galaxy – known as HE 0940-1050.

To recap, most large galaxies in the Universe have SMBHs at their center. These huge black holes are known for consuming the matter that orbits all around them, expelling tremendous amounts of radio, microwave, infrared, optical, ultra-violet (UV), X-ray and gamma ray energy in the process. Because of this, they are some of the brightest objects in the known Universe, and are visible even from billions of light years away.

 Artist’s interpretation of ULAS J1120+0641, a very distant quasar. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Artist’s interpretation of ULAS J1120+0641, a very distant quasar.
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

But because of their distance, the energy which they emit has to pass through the intergalactic medium, where it comes into contact with incredible amount of matter. While most of this consists of hydrogen and helium, there are trace amounts of other elements as well. These absorb much of the light that travels between distant galaxies and us, and the absorption lines this creates can tell us of lot about the kinds of elements that are out there.

At the same time, studying the absorption lines produced by light passing through space can tell us how much light was removed from the original quasar spectrum. Using the Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) instrument aboard the VLT, the Swinburne and Cambridge team were able to do just that, thus sneaking a peak at the “fingerprints of the early Universe“.

What they found was that the energy coming from HE 0940-1050 was very similar to that observed in the Milky Way galaxy. Basically, they obtained proof that electromagnetic energy is consistent over time, something which was previously a mystery to scientists. As they state in their study, which was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society:

“The Standard Model of particle physics is incomplete because it cannot explain the values of fundamental constants, or predict their dependence on parameters such as time and space. Therefore, without a theory that is able to properly explain these numbers, their constancy can only be probed by measuring them in different places, times and conditions. Furthermore, many theories which attempt to unify gravity with the other three forces of nature invoke fundamental constants that are varying.
A laser beam launched from VLT´s 8.2-metre Yepun telescope crosses the majestic southern sky and creates an artificial star at 90 km altitude in the high Earth´s mesosphere. The Laser Guide Star (LGS) is part of the VLT´s Adaptive Optics system and it is used as reference to correct images from the blurring effect of the atmosphere. The picture field is crossed by an impressive Milky Way, our own galaxy seen perfectly edge-on. The most prominent objects on the Milky Way are: Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, visible at the top and the Carina nebula, seen as a bright patch besides the telescope. From the right edge of the picture to the left, the following objects are aligned: the Small Magellanic Cloud (with the globular cluster 47 Tucanae on its right), the Large Magellanic Cloud and Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky.
A laser beam launched from the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. Credit: ESO

Since it is 8 billion light years away, and its strong intervening metal-absorption-line system, probing the electromagnetic spectrum being put out by HE 0940-1050 central quasar – not to mention the ability to correct for all the light that was absorbed by the intervening intergalactic medium – provided a unique opportunity to precisely measure how this fundamental force can vary over a very long period of time.

On top of that, the spectral information they obtained happened to be of the highest quality ever observed from a quasar. As they further indicated in their study:

“The largest systematic error in all (but one) previous similar measurements, including the large samples, was long-range distortions in the wavelength calibration. These would add a ?2 ppm systematic error to our measurement and up to ?10 ppm to other measurements using Mg and Fe transitions.”

However, the team corrected for this by comparing the UVES spectra to well-calibrated spectra obtained  from the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) –  which is also located at the at the La Silla Observatory. By combining these readings, they were left with a residual systematic uncertainty of just 0.59 ppm, the lowest margin of error from any spectrographic survey to date.

High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher at the ESO La Silla 3.6m telescope. Credit: ESO
High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher at the ESO La Silla 3.6m telescope. Credit: ESO

This is exciting news, and for more reasons that one. On the one hand, precise measurements of distant galaxies allow us to test some of the most tricky aspects of our current cosmological models. On the other, determining that electromagnetism behaves in a consistent way over time is a major find, largely because it is responsible for such much of what goes on in our daily lives.

But perhaps most importantly of all, understanding how a fundamental force like electromagnetism behaves across time and space is intrinsic to finding out how it – as well as weak and strong nuclear force – unifies with gravity. This too has been a preoccupation of scientists, who are still at a loss when it comes to explaining how the laws governing particles interactions (i.e. quantum theory) unify with explanations of how gravity works (i.e general relativity).

By finding measurements of how these forces operate that are not varying could help in creating a working Grand Unifying Theory (GUT). One step closer to truly understanding how the Universe works!

Further Reading: ESO