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The closest case of a black hole devouring a star

There are two supermassive black holes in the OJ 287 galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A new groundbreaking discovery has been made by scientists revealing the closest example of a black hole consuming a star. The event was detected for the first time through infrared data, which opens up the possibility of further searches in infrared revealing more similar occurrences.

A groundbreaking discovery reveals the closest example of a black hole consuming a star, marking the first time such an event has been detected in infrared data. This suggests that further searches in infrared could uncover more similar occurrences.

Unprecedented Infrared Detection of Tidal Disruption Event

Every 10,000 years or so, a galaxy’s center illuminates as its supermassive black hole tears apart a passing star, a phenomenon known as a “tidal disruption event” (TDE). Approximately 100 TDEs have been identified in distant galaxies, primarily through X-rays and optical radiation.

MIT astronomers have discovered a new TDE that shines brightly in infrared, one of the first instances of a TDE being identified at infrared wavelengths. This event, dubbed WTP14adbjsh, also happens to be the closest TDE observed to date, occurring in galaxy NGC 7392, approximately 137 million light-years from Earth.

A Hidden Phenomenon Uncovered

Conventional X-ray and optical data did not reveal WTP14adbjsh. Scientists believe that traditional surveys overlooked the nearby TDE due to an immense amount of dust obscuring the radiation and emitting heat as infrared energy. This event occurred in a young, star-forming galaxy, contrasting with the majority of TDEs found in quieter galaxies.

The discovery suggests that infrared searches could reveal more TDEs in active, star-forming galaxies, which have previously been hidden by dust obscuring light from their cores. “Finding this nearby TDE means that there must be a large population of these events that traditional methods were blind to,” says Christos Panagiotou, a postdoc at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

Unlocking the Mysteries of Tidal Disruption Events

The research, published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, was initially not intended to search for TDEs. Utilizing a search tool developed by Kishalay De, the team discovered a bright flash in the sky in late 2014. They traced the flash to a galaxy 42 megaparsecs from Earth and, after eliminating other possibilities, concluded it was a TDE.

Further investigation revealed that the galaxy’s supermassive black hole was roughly 30 million times more massive than the sun. The galaxy is also actively producing new stars, which has confused scientists, as most TDEs have been traced to rarer “green” galaxies rather than more common star-forming “blue” galaxies. However, the dust produced by star-forming galaxies could explain why TDEs have not been detected using conventional methods.

Astronomers can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon by using infrared surveys to detect obscured TDEs in dusty, star-forming galaxies.

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