From UCSC: “Black hole meal sets record for length and size”

UC Santa Cruz

UC Santa Cruz

February 06, 2017
Tim Stephens

New observations confirm a theoretical model developed by UCSC astrophysicists of ‘tidal disruption events,’ when the tidal forces of a black hole tear apart a star

XJ1500+0154. This artist’s illustration depicts a “tidal disruption event” (TDE), when a star wanders too close to a black hole and is destroyed by tidal forces generated from the black hole’s intense gravitational forces. During a TDE, some of the stellar debris is flung outward at high speeds, while the rest (shown as the red material in the illustration) becomes hotter as it falls toward the black hole, generating a distinct x-ray flare. A wind blowing away from this infalling material is shown in blue. (Credits: Illustration: CXC/M. Weiss; X-ray: NASA/CXC/UNH/D. Lin et al, Optical: CFHT)

NASA/Chandra Telescope

CFHT Telescope, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

A giant black hole ripped apart a star and then gorged on its remains for about a decade, according to astronomers. This is more than ten times longer than any observed episode of a star’s death by black hole.

Researchers made this discovery using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and Swift satellite as well as ESA’s XMM-Newton. They published their findings February 6 in Nature Astronomy.

NASA/SWIFT Telescope

ESA/XMM Newton

The trio of orbiting X-ray telescopes found evidence for a “tidal disruption event” (TDE), wherein the tidal forces due to the intense gravity from a black hole can destroy an object – such as a star – that wanders too close. During a TDE, some of the stellar debris is flung outward at high speeds, while the rest falls toward the black hole. As it travels inwards to be ingested by the black hole, the material heats up to millions of degrees and generates a distinct x-ray flare.

“We have witnessed a star’s spectacular and prolonged demise,” said Dacheng Lin from the University of New Hampshire in Durham, who led the study. “Dozens of tidal disruption events have been detected since the 1990s, but none that remained bright for nearly as long as this one.”

According to coauthor Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, professor and chair of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, the observations of this TDE with a long-lasting bright phase fit the theoretical predications made in a 2015 paper he wrote with a former graduate student, coauthor James Guillochon, now at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.

“We correctly predicted in advance of observations that some TDEs would be discovered with long-lived light curves,” Ramirez-Ruiz said. “The pieces of the star have to make an accretion disk promptly in order for the material to be digested by the black hole. With a lower mass black hole, stars can get disrupted farther away from the event horizon, and as a result we expect circularization and accretion to be slow.”

The extraordinary long bright phase of this event spanning over ten years means that a large amount of mass had to be digested by the black hole. The theoretical model supports either the complete digestion of a star with twice the mass of the sun, or the partial disruption of a much more massive star, Ramirez-Ruiz said, adding that he favors the full disruption of a lower mass star.

The X-ray source containing this force-fed black hole, known by its abbreviated name of XJ1500+0154, is located in a small galaxy about 1.8 billion light years from Earth.

The source was not detected in a Chandra observation on April 2nd, 2005, but was detected in an XMM-Newton observation on July 23rd, 2005, and reached peak brightness in a Chandra observation on June 5, 2008. These observations show that the source became at least 100 times brighter in x-rays. Since then, Chandra, Swift, and XMM-Newton have observed it multiple times.

The sharp x-ray vision of Chandra data shows that XJ1500+0154 is located at the center of its host galaxy, the expected location for a supermassive black hole. The x-ray data also indicate that radiation from material surrounding this black hole has consistently surpassed the so-called Eddington limit, defined by a balance between the outward pressure of radiation from the hot gas and the inward pull of the gravity of the black hole.

“For most of the time we’ve been looking at this object, it has been growing rapidly,” Guillochon said. “This tells us something unusual—like a star twice as heavy as our Sun—is being fed into the black hole.”

This TDE may help answer the question as to how supermassive black holes in the early universe grow. If supermassive black holes can grow from TDEs or other means faster than the Eddington limit, this could explain how supermassive black holes were able to reach masses about a billion times higher than the sun when the universe was only about a billion years old.

“This event shows that black holes really can grow at extraordinarily high rates,” said co-author Stefanie Komossa of QianNan Normal University for Nationalities in Duyun City, China. “This may help understand how precocious black holes came to be.”

Based on the modeling by the researchers, the black hole’s feeding supply should be significantly reduced in the next decade. This would result in XJ1500+0154 fading in x-ray brightness over the next several years.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.

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UCO Lick Shane Telescope
UCO Lick Shane Telescope interior
Shane Telescope at UCO Lick Observatory, UCSC

Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA

Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA

UC Santa Cruz campus
The University of California, Santa Cruz, opened in 1965 and grew, one college at a time, to its current (2008-09) enrollment of more than 16,000 students. Undergraduates pursue more than 60 majors supervised by divisional deans of humanities, physical & biological sciences, social sciences, and arts. Graduate students work toward graduate certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees in more than 30 academic fields under the supervision of the divisional and graduate deans. The dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering oversees the campus’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs.

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Friends of Lick Observatory is celebratinc its fifth annivrsary.

Lick Observatory's Great Lick 91-centimeter (36-inch) telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building
Lick Observatory’s Great Lick 91-centimeter (36-inch) telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building

Search for extraterrestrial intelligence expands at Lick Observatory
New instrument scans the sky for pulses of infrared light
March 23, 2015
By Hilary Lebow
The NIROSETI instrument saw first light on the Nickel 1-meter Telescope at Lick Observatory on March 15, 2015. (Photo by Laurie Hatch) UCSC Lick Nickel telescope

Astronomers are expanding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light at UC’s Lick Observatory. A new instrument, called NIROSETI, will soon scour the sky for messages from other worlds.

“Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication,” said Shelley Wright, an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego who led the development of the new instrument while at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Wright worked on an earlier SETI project at Lick Observatory as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, when she built an optical instrument designed by UC Berkeley researchers. The infrared project takes advantage of new technology not available for that first optical search.

Infrared light would be a good way for extraterrestrials to get our attention here on Earth, since pulses from a powerful infrared laser could outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from great distances. It also takes less energy to send information using infrared signals than with visible light.

UCSC alumna Shelley Wright, now an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego, discusses the dichroic filter of the NIROSETI instrument. (Photo by Laurie Hatch)

Frank Drake, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and director emeritus of the SETI Institute, said there are several additional advantages to a search in the infrared realm.

“The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success,” said Drake.

The only downside is that extraterrestrials would need to be transmitting their signals in our direction, Drake said, though he sees this as a positive side to that limitation. “If we get a signal from someone who’s aiming for us, it could mean there’s altruism in the universe. I like that idea. If they want to be friendly, that’s who we will find.”

Scientists have searched the skies for radio signals for more than 50 years and expanded their search into the optical realm more than a decade ago. The idea of searching in the infrared is not a new one, but instruments capable of capturing pulses of infrared light only recently became available.

“We had to wait,” Wright said. “I spent eight years waiting and watching as new technology emerged.”

Now that technology has caught up, the search will extend to stars thousands of light years away, rather than just hundreds. NIROSETI, or Near-Infrared Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, could also uncover new information about the physical universe.

“This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales,” said Dan Werthimer, UC Berkeley SETI Project Director. “The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone.”

NIROSETI will also gather more information than previous optical detectors by recording levels of light over time so that patterns can be analyzed for potential signs of other civilizations.

“Searching for intelligent life in the universe is both thrilling and somewhat unorthodox,” said Claire Max, director of UC Observatories and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “Lick Observatory has already been the site of several previous SETI searches, so this is a very exciting addition to the current research taking place.”

NIROSETI will be fully operational by early summer and will scan the skies several times a week on the Nickel 1-meter telescope at Lick Observatory, located on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose.

The NIROSETI team also includes Geoffrey Marcy and Andrew Siemion from UC Berkeley; Patrick Dorval, a Dunlap undergraduate, and Elliot Meyer, a Dunlap graduate student; and Richard Treffers of Starman Systems. Funding for the project comes from the generous support of Bill and Susan Bloomfield.

Please help promote STEM in your local schools.


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UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.