Should this ionizing radiation hit clouds of dust immediately surrounding the black hole, it will be vaporized, but further away the energy from this radiation will be absorbed and then re-emitted as infrared radiation. It is this re-emission of infrared radiation that acts like an echo, occurring some time after the original flare.
RELATED: Milky Way's Second Most Massive Black Hole Found?
Now, using data from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), two groups of researchers were able to gain a surprising amount of information about the volume of space surrounding distant supermassive black holes, also revealing some of the secrets about these cataclysmic explosions.
Before the WISE mission was completed in 2011, the space telescope mapped the infrared universe every 6 months. After a selection of candidate stellar tidal disruption events were detected in the centers of galaxies, the WISE data could be used to see how the flare affected the black hole's dusty ring and how that heating evolved with time, using a technique known as "photo-reverberation" or "light echoes." With this information, the researchers were able to deduce how far from the central black hole the dust clouds were and how much energy was released by the flare.
RELATED: Unprecedented Flare Blasts from Galaxy's Black Hole
"Our study confirms that the dust is there, and that we can use it to determine how much energy was generated in the destruction of the star," said Varoujan Gorjian, an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
In addition, they were able to gain a handle on the structure of the surrounding dust, revealing the dust has been blown out into a "patchy, spherical web of dust located a few trillion miles (half a light-year) from the black hole itself," according to a NASA news release.
"The black hole has destroyed everything between itself and this dust shell," said Sjoert van Velzen, of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. "It's as though the black hole has cleaned its room by throwing flames."