Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have determined that a mysterious bright flash that was initially observed earlier this year by astronomers in California is a black hole jet “pointing straight toward Earth,” the school said in a statement.
Astronomers monitoring data from the Zwicky Transient Facility based at the Palomar Observatory detected a huge flash in a part of the sky where no such burst of light had been spotted the night before, MIT said on Wednesday.
How big was the flash? Consider this: it “appeared to give off more light than 1,000 trillion suns,” the statement said.
The team that first spotted it, led by researchers at NASA, Caltech, which operates Palomar Observatory, and elsewhere, posted its discovery to an astronomy newsletter, which caught the eye of astronomers in Cambridge.
Over the next few days, MIT said, researchers used multiple telescopes to hone in on the signal to gather more data across wavelengths in the X-ray, ultraviolet, optical, and radio bands, to see what might produce such a massive amount of light.
And now, the statement said, MIT astronomers and their collaborators have determined the likely source of the flash, and their findings are appearing in the journal Nature Astronomy.
The study found that the light signal, dubbed AT 2022cmc, likely comes from a “relativistic jet of matter” streaking out from a “supermassive black hole” at a rate nearing the speed of light, the statement said.
Researchers believe the jet is a product of a black hole that suddenly began consuming a nearby star, releasing a large amount of energy in the process, MIT said. The flash was detected at some 8.5 billion light years away, or more than halfway across the universe, according to the statement.
“We know there is one supermassive black hole per galaxy, and they formed very quickly in the universe’s first million years,” said study coauthor Matteo Lucchini, a postdoc in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, in the statement.
“That tells us they feed very fast, though we don’t know how that feeding process works,” Lucchini said. “So, sources like a [tidal disruption event] can actually be a really good probe for how that process happens.”
Lucchini’s MIT coauthors on the study include first author Dheeraj “DJ” Pasham, Peter Kosec, Erin Kara, and Ronald Remillard, along with collaborators at universities and organizations from around the world, the statement said.
Pasham, a research scientist at the Kavli Institute, in the statement described the process by which the black hole apparently ate the star, giving off the massive AT 2022cmc light signal.
“It’s probably swallowing the star at the rate of half the mass of the sun per year,” Pasham said in the statement, describing the phenomenon as a “hyper-feeding frenzy.”
Pasham said much of the tidal disruption “happens early on, and we were able to catch this event right at the beginning, within one week of the black hole starting to feed on the star.”
Lucchini added that researchers expect to see more such tidal disruption events, or TDEs, in the future.
“Then we might be able to say, finally, how exactly black holes launch these extremely powerful jets,” Lucchini said in the statement.
Travis Andersen can be reached at email@example.com.