Key Takeaways:

  • Researchers have unearthed evidence of a supermassive black hole devouring a star, a rare cosmic event, from data collected in the 1980s.
  • The breakthrough was possible due to the keen eyes of high school interns, Ginevra Zaccagnini and Jackson Codd, who sifted through archival data.
  • This phenomenon, known as a tidal disruption event (TDE), occurs when a star ventures too close to a black hole, resulting in a burst of light.
  • The discovery sheds light on the messy process of stars meeting their end in the gravitational grip of black holes, challenging the notion that they go quietly.
  • Analysis suggests a supermassive black hole located 500 million light-years away was responsible for this cosmic spectacle.
  • This revelation opens new avenues for understanding TDEs, the black holes that instigate them, and the galaxies housing these enigmatic cosmic behemoths.

A groundbreaking discovery has emerged from the depths of data collected in the 1980s, where astronomers have identified the signature of a supermassive black hole devouring a star. This extraordinary finding, detailed in a research paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, sheds new light on the rare phenomenon known as a tidal disruption event (TDE), where a star gets too close to a black hole, leading to its violent disintegration and the emission of a burst of light.

What makes this discovery even more remarkable is that it was made possible by two high school interns, Ginevra Zaccagnini and Jackson Codd, hailing from Massachusetts. They were reviewing archival observations from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico when they stumbled upon a bright signal from the 1980s that had faded by 2017.

Astronomer Vikram Ravi and a team of scientists, including the interns, began to piece together the puzzle. They found that this signal, emanating from an object dubbed J1533+2727, had been captured by the Green Bank Observatory’s 300-foot radio telescope in 1986 and 1987, shining even brighter than in the 1990s data initially examined. Remarkably, this object is now 500 times dimmer than during its brightest phase.

The researchers concluded that this luminous flash was the result of a supermassive black hole, located 500 million light-years away from Earth, tearing apart a star and expelling a radio jet. This revelation not only deepens our understanding of TDEs but also offers insights into the galaxies hosting these enigmatic black holes.

One intriguing aspect of this discovery is that neither of the radio-emitting TDE candidates was found in the typical type of galaxy associated with TDEs. This leads to tantalizing questions about the prevalence of such events and the types of galaxies they occur in.

The scientists are now turning their attention to the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory, hoping to uncover more TDEs producing radio waves. This groundbreaking research, presented during the 239th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, paves the way for a new era of exploration into the mysteries of our universe, demonstrating that radio-bright TDEs may be more common than previously believed.

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