Supermassive Death: 3 Stars Get Eaten By Black Holes
Artist's impression of a spinning supermassive black hole with a surrounding accretion disk and relativistic jets.
How to measure the spin of a black hole: This chart illustrates the basic model for determining the spin rates of black holes. The three artist's concepts represent the different types of spin: retrograde rotation, where the disk of matter falling onto the hole, called an accretion disk, moves in the opposite direction of the black hole; no spin; and prograde rotation, where the disk spins in the same direction as the black hole.
Two models of black hole spin: Scientists measure the spin rates of supermassive black holes by spreading the X-ray light into different colors. The light comes from accretion disks that swirl around black holes, as shown in both of the artist's concepts. They use X-ray space telescopes to study these colors, and, in particular, look for a "fingerprint" of iron -- the peak shown in both graphs, or spectra -- to see how sharp it is. Prior to observations with NASA's Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, and the European Space Agency's XMM- Newton telescope, there were two competing models to explain why this peak might not appear to be sharp. The "rotation" model shown at top held that the iron feature was being spread out by distorting effects caused by the immense gravity of the black hole. If this model were correct, then the amount of distortion seen in the iron feature should reveal the spin rate of the black hole. The alternate model held that obscuring clouds lying near the black hole were making the iron line appear artificially distorted. If this model were correct, the data could not be used to measure black hole spin.
This chart depicts the electromagnetic spectrum, highlighting the X-ray portion. NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton telescope complement each other by seeing different colors of X-ray light. XMM-Newton sees X-rays with energies between 0.1 and 10 kiloelectron volts (keV), the "red" part of the spectrum, while NuSTAR sees the highest-energy, or "bluest," X- ray light, with energies between 3 and 70 keV.
This image taken by the ultraviolet-light monitoring camera on the European Space Agency's (ESA's) XMM-Newton telescope shows the beautiful spiral arms of the galaxy NGC1365. Copious high-energy X-ray emission is emitted by the host galaxy, and by many background sources. The large regions observed by previous satellites contain so much of this background emission that the radiation from the central black hole is mixed and diluted into it. NuSTAR, NASA's newest X-ray observatory, is able to isolate the emission from the black hole, allowing a far more precise analysis of its properties.
What XMM-Newton saw: The solid lines show two theoretical models that explain the low-energy X-ray emission seen from the galaxy NGC 1365 by the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton. The red line explains the emission using a model where clouds of dust and gas partially block the X-ray light, and the green line represents a model in which the emission is reflected off the inner edge of the accretion disk, very close to the black hole. The blue circles show the measurements from XMM-Newton, which are explained equally well by both models.
Two X-ray observatories are better than one: NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, has helped to show, for the first time, that the spin rates of black holes can be measured conclusively. It did this, together with the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton, by ruling out the possibility that obscuring clouds were partially blocking X-ray right coming from black holes. The solid lines show two theoretical models that explain low-energy X-ray emission seen previously from the spiral galaxy NGC 1365 by XMM-Newton. The red line explains the emission using a model where clouds of dust and gas partially block the X-ray light, and the green line represents a model in which the emission is reflected off the inner edge of the accretion disk, very close to the black hole. The blue circles show the latest measurements from XMM-Newton, and the yellow circles show the data from NuSTAR. While both models fit the XMM-Newton data equally well, only the disk reflection model fits the NuSTAR data.
Astrophysicists have analyzed two decades-worth of X-ray data and discovered three events inside galactic cores that can be interpreted in only one way: stellar destruction.
For any given galaxy, it is estimated that a star will be destroyed by the central supermassive black hole approximately once every 10,000 years. The vast majority of known galaxies are thought to contain at least one supermassive black hole in their cores, having a dramatic effect on galactic and stellar evolution.
As a star drifts too close to a supermassive black hole, intense tidal stresses rip the star to shreds. As this happens, the shredded material will be dragged into the black hole’s accretion disk — a hot disk of gas that is gradually pulled into the black hole’s event horizon, bulking up the black hole’s mass, or blasted as energetic jets from its poles.
Should there be a rapid injection of material — i.e. a star becoming blended and ingested into the accretion disk — powerful X-rays of a specific signature will be generated.
In a new study by the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, astrophysicists trawled through observations from two space observatories to discover three likely occasions where stars have been eaten by supermassive black holes. Their work has been accepted for publication in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Using data from the German ROSAT and European XMM-Newton space observatories, X-ray data from 1990 (to today) could be accessed and three events in different galaxies were positively identified — designated 1RXS J114727.1 + 494302, 1RXS J130547.2 + 641252 and 1RXS J235424.5-102053. Invaluable to this study was the long-duration observations by ROSAT (which operated from 1990 to 1999) and XMM-Newton (launched in 1999) that could detect the moment of stellar death, keeping track of the X-ray emissions over the years as the star’s material was gradually ingested.
No more than two dozen other stellar death event candidates were seen in the observations, but positive identifications probably won’t be available until the launch of the multi-instrument Spectrum-X-Gamma space observatory in 2016.
This work has added some much needed detail to these rare events, indicating that (on average) one star every 30,000 years in any given galaxy will be destroyed by the central supermassive black hole, though the researchers caution that more observations of stars being eaten by supermassive black holes are needed.