The world is as fascinating as it is enigmatic; it conceals secrets in its immense darkness that we have yet to discover. Black holes are among the most enigmatic things in the universe. Nonetheless, a team of scientists has investigated a tremendous jet of light emitted by one of these cosmic cannibals, which could assist us in permanently uncovering their identities.
The science and other stuff to know
Astronomers at the Palomar Observatory’s Zwicky Transient Facility in California observed a terrifying light signal called AT 2022cmc in February of this year: it was an unknown emission source that, despite being 8,500 million light-years from Earth, sent a powerful stream of light 1,000 trillion times brighter than the Sun.
A team of MIT researchers has now proposed an explanation for the unknown source: a supermassive black hole that has likely devoured a star and is blasting a relativistic jet of matter toward us at nearly the speed of light. Fortunately, we are so far away that only light can reach us, rather than the heat and radiation from the jet, which would almost certainly destroy the entire Solar System. Their research has been published in Nature Astronomy.
These intense lights are a very common astronomical phenomenon known as a “tidal disruption event,” or TDE. A similar phenomenon occurs when a big star or body is swallowed by a black hole. As the star approaches, the colossus’ gravity shreds it apart, and its debris begins to whirl rapidly around it, generating two jets of particles blasted at high speeds from the black hole’s poles and emitting massive amounts of radiation, particularly X-rays. These ejections are referred to as relativistic jets.
AT 2022cmc is, so far, one of a kind. Astronomers have observed only a handful of TDEs, but this one is exceptionally bright. Experts believe that it is a matter of continuing to monitor the sky so that other similar events appear that can be studied to draw useful conclusions.
This was expressed by Matteo Lucchini, co-author of the article, in an MIT press release: “We know that there is one supermassive black hole per galaxy, and they formed very quickly in the first million years of the universe. […] That tells us they feed very quickly, even though we don’t know how that feeding process works. So sources like a TDE can be a very good probe of how that process happens.”
The galaxy that hosts the gravitational tyrant emitting the observed jet is not currently visible since it is being eclipsed by it. But once the jet’s glow fades, astronomers will be able to point the James Webb Space Telescope at it to study its behavior to acquire insight into how galaxies form in coevolution with the central black holes that govern them.