Key Takeaways:

  • Astronomers observed a record-breaking distant event (AT2022cmc) of a supermassive black hole devouring a star 12.4 billion light-years away.
  • The TDE unleashed a bright and massive jet of energy traveling near light speed, pointing towards Earth, making it a rare observable phenomenon.
  • The light from the event took 8.5 billion years to reach us, offering a glimpse into the universe at a much younger age (⅓ its current age).
  • The fast-moving jet suggests the black hole might have been spinning rapidly during the star’s consumption.
  • Scientists hope future telescopes like Vera C. Rubin Observatory will reveal a population of similar jetted TDEs, improving our understanding of violent cosmic events.

Somewhere right now in the infinite span of our universe, a star is approaching the gaping maw of a black hole. It will begin to split apart as it approaches close enough, a process amusingly named “spaghettification” that could produce a tremendous energy jet that is detectable from Earth.

We refer to this phenomenon as a tidal disruption event (TDE). It is not common. However, if one is discovered, astronomers will have the opportunity to witness a black hole consuming celestial objects firsthand.

That’s precisely what happened when the farthest-reaching TDE ever observed by an international team of astronomers was observed. The researchers reported discovering an event known as AT2022cmc—a supermassive black hole consuming a star about 12.4 billion light years away—in a paper published in the journals Nature and Nature Astronomy. Using optical telescopes, observers could see the massive and bright energy jet that the TDE unleashed.

The authors of the study now claim that the experience helped them understand how supermassive black holes form as well as what our universe looked like in its early stages.

According to Igon Andreoni, a University of Maryland astronomer and co-leader of the Nature paper, “the luminous jet of material was launched almost at the speed of light and the jet was pointing in our direction,” The Daily Beast reported. “Because the jet is collimated, we can only observe it if we are very close to the direction in which it is pointing, making it an even rarer phenomenon that can be observed at all.”

According to Andreoni, it took the light from the event 8.5 billion years to travel through space and reach Earth. It happened, therefore, at a third of the universe’s visible age.

This just emphasizes how brilliant AT2022cmc was at the time of the event. While researchers aren’t completely certain, the study’s authors surmise that this was due to how the black hole was moving at the time it swallowed the star.

“[We] argue that the black hole was likely spinning fast, which might have an important role for these powerful jets to be launched,” Anderoni said. We also came to the conclusion that, although the black hole is ‘supermassive,’ it is ‘only’ a few hundred million times the mass of our Sun, not more massive than most black holes at the center of galaxies.

Presently, the scientists intend to expand on their findings by employing more modern telescopes, such as the soon-to-be-constructed Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. Every few nights after it’s finished, it will be able to see the whole observable sky.

Using optical telescopes, Anderoni hopes the new observatory will be able to “unveil a whole population of jetted TDEs.”

“Unveiling a population of such rare transients means that we can greatly improve our understanding of the violent universe,” he said.

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