A huge star has been obliterated by a giant black hole

This artist’s illustration depicts the aftermath of a “tidal disruption event” (TDE) called ASASSN-14li, in which a star was shredded after coming too close to a supermassive black hole. After the star was torn apart, some of its gas (red) orbited the black hole and fell into the black hole, while some of the gas was blown away in the wind (blue). Source: NASA/CXC/University of Michigan/J. Miller et al.; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

  • giant Black hole 290 million light-years away, it destroyed a large star and threw its pieces into space.
  • NASAThe European Space Agency’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton Observatory searched the aftermath of this event for information.
  • X-ray data reveal the relative amount of nitrogen compared to carbon in this stellar debris field.
  • Comparison with models shows that a star three times the mass of the Sun was destroyed, making it one of the largest “tidal disruption events” known.

Using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton Observatory, and other telescopes, astronomers have determined that a supermassive black hole has destroyed a massive star and spewed its contents into space. By analyzing the details of the X-ray data, the team was able to estimate the relative amount of nitrogen compared to carbon in the aftermath of this gravitational attack. These items provide valuable clues to researchers about the type of star that died.

Artistic representation of the event

The artist’s illustration (at the top of this article) pays homage to “Tidal disturbance has occurred(TDE) is called ASASSN-14li, and is the focus of the latest study. When the star gets too close to the system’s supermassive black hole, the powerful gravity rips the star apart. This artist’s photograph depicts the aftermath of that destruction. After the star was torn apart, some of its (red) gas remained orbiting around it and falling into the black hole. Part of the gas has been blown away by the wind (blue).

Item analysis

The scientists used X-ray spectroscopy — that is, a plot of the X-ray brightness compared to wavelength — from Chandra and XMM to probe the elements in these winds. The Chandra spectrum is shown in the inset, where the data are colored blue (squiggly lines) and the uncertainties for each data point are blue vertical lines. A sample spectrum is shown in red, with nitrogen detected from the drop in the spectrum, and no carbon detected from the no drop highlighted.

A giant black hole destroys a huge stellar spectrum

X-ray spectrum, Chandra. Source: NASA/CXC/University of Michigan/J. Miller et al.; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

The amount of nitrogen and the maximum amount of carbon that can escape detection provide the minimum value of the nitrogen-to-carbon ratio that is consistent with the data. This value indicates that the shredded star in ASASSN-14li has about three times the mass of the Sun. This would make it one of the largest stars ever known to have been destroyed in a TDE.

Historical context and future implications

ASASSN-14li was first detected in November 2014 by ground-based telescopes, when it was realized that this was the closest TDE to Earth in about a decade. In the years since, many telescopes, including Chandra, have observed this system.

In addition to the star-destroyer’s unusual size and the ability to perform detailed forensic analyses, ASASSN-14li is also exciting because of what it means for future studies. Astronomers have seen medium-mass stars like ASASSN-14li in the star cluster that contains the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Therefore, being able to estimate the stellar masses of tidally disrupted stars would potentially give astronomers a way to determine the presence of star clusters around supermassive black holes in distant galaxies.

Until this study, there was a strong possibility that the elements detected in the X-rays might have come from gas spewed out in previous explosions from the supermassive black hole. However, the pattern of elements analyzed here appears to have come from a single star.

Reference: “Evidence for massive stellar perturbation in the X-ray spectrum of ASASSN-14li” by John M. Miller, Brenna Moakler, Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, Paul A. Dragis, Jeremy J. Drake, John Raymond, Mark T. Reynolds, Chen Xiang, Saul Bin-yun and Abdel-Rahman Al-Zoghbi, August 21, 2023, Available here. the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
doi: 10.3847/2041-8213/ace03c

A paper describing these results has been published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. The authors are John M. Miller (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), Brenna Moakler (Carnegie Observatories), Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz (University of California, Santa Cruz), Paul Dragis (University of Michigan), Jeremy Drake (Astrophysics Center) | Harvard and Smithsonian), John Raymond (Cfa), Mark Reynolds (University of Michigan), Chen Xiang (University of Michigan), Saul Bin Yun (University of Michigan), and Abdul Rahman Al-Zoghbi (University of Maryland).

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Chandra X-ray Center of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls science operations from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts.

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