The brightest event ever detected in deep space occurred when a supermassive black hole “came to life” and began consuming surrounding matter, according to researchers.
Supermassive Black Hole
When the brightness of an astronomical object changes over a short period of time, this is considered transient. According to scientists, the J221951 transient is one of the brightest ever observed.
Scientists are attempting to determine the cause of the transients in J221951, as a black hole exists at the center of every massive galaxy.
According to Matt Nicholl, an astronomer at the University of Belfast, “our understanding of the different things that supermassive black holes can do has greatly expanded in recent years, with discoveries of stars being torn apart and accreting black holes with hugely variable luminosities.”
It is unknown what the supermassive black hole — located 10 billion light-years away — is consuming; however, J221951 is thought to be a star that got too close to the giant black hole and is being violently torn apart by forces arising from powerful gravitational pull.
This disruption would cause some stellar material to fall into the black hole, scattering its remnants across the accreditation disk.
According to space.com, J221951 is the result of the nucleus at the heart of a galaxy switching from a dormant to an active state, which is not the only factor causing the bright transient.
The results were presented at the 2023 National Astronomy Meeting in Cardiff, UK. Active galactic nuclei (AGNs) are bright areas at the center of galaxies that emit enough light to dim the light of every star in the galaxy. Supermassive black holes also power them.
“Continual monitoring of J221951 to determine the total energy release could help us determine whether this is a tidal disruption of a star by a fast-spinning black hole or a new type of AGN switch on,” Nicholl added.
Kilonovas are transient events that occur when two neutron stars or a neutron star and a black hole merge and produce brightness. Following the merger, the objects emit electromagnetic radiation.
They are blue at first and then turn red after a few days. The transient J221951 was also blue, but it did not act as a kilonova.
“The key discovery was when Hubble’s ultraviolet (UV) spectrum ruled out a galactic origin.” This demonstrates the critical importance of maintaining a space-based UV spectrograph capability in the future,” said team member and Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London researcher Paul Kuin.
With a source 10 billion light-years away, the team concluded that J221951 had to be one of the brightest events ever witnessed. They will now work to determine what caused it.
“In the future, we will be able to obtain important clues that will help distinguish between the tidal disruption event and active galactic nuclei scenarios,” said Oates.
“For example, if J221951 is associated with an AGN turning on, we might expect it to stop fading and brighten again, whereas if J221951 is a tidal disruption event, we might expect it to fade.”
“We will need to keep an eye on J221951 for the next few months to years in order to capture its late-time behavior.”
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