Black Hole Caught Red-Handed in a Stellar Homicide

Astronomers have gathered the most direct evidence yet of a supermassive black hole shredding a star that wandered too close. NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer, a space-based observatory, and the Pan-STARRS1 telescope on the summit of Haleakala in Hawaii, were among the first to help identify the stellar remains.

Supermassive black holes, weighing millions to billions times more than the sun, lurk in the centers of most galaxies. These hefty monsters lay quietly until an unsuspecting victim, such as a star, wanders close enough to get ripped apart by their powerful gravitational clutches.

Astronomers have spotted these stellar homicides before, but this is the first time they identified the victim. Using several ground- and space-based telescopes, a team of astronomers led by Suvi Gezari of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore identified the victim as a star rich in helium gas. The star resides in a galaxy 2.7 billion light-years away. The team’s results will appear in today’s online edition of the journal Nature.

The Galaxy Evolution Explorer was launched on April 28, 2003. Its mission is to study the shape, brightness, size and distance of galaxies across 10 billion years of cosmic history. The 50-centimeter-diameter (19.7-inch) telescope onboard the Galaxy Evolution Explorer sweeps the skies in search of ultraviolet-light sources.
Ultraviolet is light from the higher end of the electromagnetic spectrum, just above visible light in frequency, but below X-rays and gamma rays. While a small amount of ultraviolet penetrates Earth's atmosphere, causing sunburn, the Galaxy Evolution Explorer observes those ultraviolet frequencies that can only be seen from space.
The Galaxy Evolution Explorer mission is led by the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif., which is also responsible for science operations and data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., a division of Caltech, manages the mission and built the science instrument. The mission was developed under NASA's Explorers Program, managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. South Korea and France are the international partners in the mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“When the star is ripped apart by the gravitational forces of the black hole, some part of the star’s remains falls into the black hole while the rest is ejected at high speeds,” Gezari said. “We are seeing the glow from the stellar gas falling into the black hole over time. We’re also witnessing the spectral signature of the ejected gas, which we find to be mostly helium. It is like we are gathering evidence from a crime scene. Because there is very little hydrogen and mostly helium in the gas, we detect from the carnage that the slaughtered star had to have been the helium-rich core of a stripped star.”

This observation yields insights about the harsh environment around black holes and the types of stars swirling around them. It is not the first time the unlucky star had a brush with the behemoth black hole.

The team believes the star’s hydrogen-filled envelope surrounding the core was lifted off a long time ago by the same black hole. The star may have been near the end of its life. After consuming most of its hydrogen fuel, it had probably ballooned in size, becoming a red giant. Astronomers think the bloated star was looping around the black hole in a highly elliptical orbit, similar to a comet’s elongated orbit around the sun. On one of its close approaches, the star was stripped of its puffed-up atmosphere by the black hole’s powerful gravity. The stellar remains continued its journey around the center, until it ventured even closer to the black hole to face its ultimate demise.

Astronomers predict stripped stars circle the central black hole of our Milky Way galaxy. These close encounters are rare, occurring roughly every 100,000 years. To find this event, Gezari’s team monitored hundreds of thousands of galaxies in ultraviolet light with the Galaxy Evolution Explorer, and in visible light with Pan-STARRS1. Pan-STARRS, short for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, scans the entire night sky for all kinds of transient phenomena, including supernovae.

The team was looking for a bright flare in ultraviolet light from the nucleus of a galaxy with a previously dormant black hole. Both telescopes spotted one in June 2010. Astronomers continued to monitor the flare as it reached peak brightness a month later and slowly faded during the next 12 months. The brightening event was similar to the explosive energy unleashed by a supernova, but the rise to the peak was much slower, taking nearly one and a half months.

“The longer the event lasted, the more excited we got, because we realized this is either a very unusual supernova or an entirely different type of event, such as a star being ripped apart by a black hole,” said team member Armin Rest of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

By measuring the increase in brightness, the astronomers calculated the black hole’s mass to be several million suns, which is comparable to the size of our Milky Way’s black hole.

Spectroscopic observations with the Multiple Meter Telescope Observatory located on Mount Hopkins in Arizona showed the black hole was swallowing lots of helium. Spectroscopy divides light into its rainbow colors, which yields an object’s characteristics, such as its temperature and gaseous makeup.

To completely rule out the possibility of an active nucleus flaring up in the galaxy, the team used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to study the hot gas. Chandra showed that the characteristics of the gas didn’t match those from an active galactic nucleus.

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The Most Distant Quasar Ever Discovered

From ESO-Cast and the European Southern Observatory. Astronomers have discovered the most distant quasar found to date. This brilliant beacon, powered by a black hole with a mass two billion times that of the Sun, is by far the brightest object yet discovered in the early Universe.

Quasars are extremely bright, distant galaxies thought to be powered by supermassive black holes at their centers. These powerful beacons may help astronomers to probe the era when the first stars and galaxies were forming.

The quasar that has just been found is seen as it was only 770 million years after the Big Bang, at redshift 7.1. It took 12.9 billion years for its light to reach us.

Although more distant objects have been confirmed, such as a gamma-ray burst at redshift 8.2, and a galaxy at redshift 8.6, the newly discovered quasar is hundreds of times brighter than these. Among any other object bright enough to be studied in detail, this is the most distant by a large margin.

The next most-distant quasar is seen as it was 870 million years after the Big Bang (redshift 6.4). Similar objects further away cannot be found in visible-light surveys because their light, stretched by the expansion of the Universe, falls mostly in the infrared part of the spectrum by the time it gets to Earth. The European UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey (UKIDSS) which uses the UK’s dedicated infrared telescope in Hawaii was designed to solve this problem. The team of astronomers hunted through millions of objects in this database to find those that could be the long-sought distant quasars, and eventually struck gold.

It took astronomers five years to find this quasar. Its distance was determined from observations made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and instruments on the Gemini North Telescope. Because the object is comparatively bright it is possible to take a spectrum of it (which involves splitting the light from the object into its component colors). This technique allowed the astronomers to find out quite a lot about the quasar.

These observations showed that the mass of the black hole at the center of the quasar is about two billion times that of the Sun. This very high mass is hard to explain so early on after the Big Bang. Current theories for the growth of supermassive black holes predict a slow build-up in mass as the compact object pulls in matter from its surroundings.

Astronomers Discover Close-knit Pairs of Massive Black Holes

Media Release:

Astronomers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and University of Hawaii (UH) have discovered 16 close-knit pairs of supermassive black holes in merging galaxies.

The discovery, based on observations done at the W. M. Keck Observatory on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, is being presented in Seattle on January 12 at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society, and has been submitted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal.

 

Three of the newly discovered black-hole pairs. On the left are images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The images on the right show the same galaxies taken with the Keck telescope and the aid of adaptive optics, revealing pairs of active galactic nuclei, which are powered by massive black holes. Credit: S. George Djorgovski

 

These black-hole pairs, also called binaries, are about a hundred to a thousand times closer together than most that have been observed before, providing astronomers a glimpse into how these behemoths and their host galaxies merge—a crucial part of understanding the evolution of the universe. Although few similarly close pairs have been seen previously, this is the largest population of such objects observed as the result of a systematic search.

“This is a very nice confirmation of theoretical predictions,” says S. George Djorgovski, professor of astronomy, who will present the results at the conference. “These close pairs are a missing link between the wide binary systems seen previously and the merging black-hole pairs at even smaller separations that we believe must be there.”

As the universe has evolved, galaxies have collided and merged to form larger ones. Nearly every one—or perhaps all—of these large galaxies contains a giant black hole at its center, with a mass millions—or even billions—of times higher than the sun’s. Material such as interstellar gas falls into the black hole, producing enough energy to outshine galaxies composed of a hundred billion stars. The hot gas and black hole form an active galactic nucleus, the brightest and most distant of which are called quasars. The prodigious energy output of active galactic nuclei can affect the evolution of galaxies themselves.

While galaxies merge, so should their central black holes, producing an even more massive black hole in the nucleus of the resulting galaxy. Such collisions are expected to generate bursts of gravitational waves, which have yet to be detected. Some merging galaxies should contain pairs of active nuclei, indicating the presence of supermassive black holes on their way to coalescing. Until now, astronomers have generally observed only widely separated pairs—binary quasars—which are typically hundreds of thousands of light-years apart.

“If our understanding of structure formation in the universe is correct, closer pairs of active nuclei must exist,” adds Adam Myers, a research scientist at UIUC and one of the coauthors. “However, they would be hard to discern in typical images blurred by Earth’s atmosphere.”

The solution was to use Laser Guide Star Adaptive Optics, a technique that enables astronomers to remove the atmospheric blur and capture images as sharp as those taken from space. One such system is deployed on the W. M. Keck Observatory’s 10-meter telescopes on Mauna Kea.

The astronomers selected their targets using spectra of known galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). In the SDSS images, the galaxies are unresolved, appearing as single objects instead of binaries. To find potential pairs, the astronomers identified targets with double sets of emission lines—a key feature that suggests the existence of two active nuclei.

By using adaptive optics on Keck, the astronomers were able to resolve close pairs of galactic nuclei, discovering 16 such binaries out of 50 targets. “The pairs we see are separated only by a few thousands of light-years—and there are probably many more to be found,” says Hai Fu, a Caltech postdoctoral scholar and the lead author of the paper.

“Our results add to the growing understanding of how galaxies and their central black holes evolve,” adds Lin Yan, a staff scientist at Caltech and one of the coauthors of the study.

“These results illustrate the discovery power of adaptive optics on large telescopes,” Djorgovski says. “With the upcoming Thirty Meter Telescope, we’ll be able to push our observational capabilities to see pairs with separations that are three times closer.”