Last month, a team of scientists led by Sjoert van Velzen of Johns Hopkins University and Gemma Anderson of ICRAR (the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research) in Perth discovered what happens when a supermassive black hole devours a star[1a]. Their paper is published in Science, and can be read for free here.
1. Black holes ↑
Stars are able to exist because of a balance between two forces. They are fuelled by nuclear fusion, but are not torn apart by nuclear explosions because they are contained by their own gravitational field.
When all potential matter has been fused, and there's no longer a force to balance gravity, they expel most of their mass and collapse inwards, becoming extremely dense. If what remains is over about 1.4 times the mass of the Sun, then it will become a black hole.
A black hole is defined as an object with a radius from which light cannot escape. This radius is known as the Schwarzschild radius, or event horizon.
The more mass that falls into a black hole, the more massive it becomes. If its mass doubles, its Schwarzschild radius doubles, and its volume increases by a factor of eight. This means that the more matter that falls into the black hole, the less dense it becomes on average.
Classical theories predict that all of the mass in a black hole is contained in the centre, in a space with no volume, and an infinite density. This is unlikely to be correct, however, as a theory of quantum gravity is needed to describe something so massive and so small, and these are still being developed.
Ordinary black holes have masses that are not much higher than the mass of the Sun, but the most massive black holes are millions to billions of times as massive. These are known as supermassive black holes.
2. Supermassive black holes ↑
Supermassive black holes are thought to exist at the centre of almost all massive galaxies. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, contains a supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A*, which is thought to be about 4 million times as massive as the Sun.
While all the stars in the Galaxy orbit around Sagittarius A*, it's also directly orbited by a number of stars from well beyond the Schwarzschild radius. It's likely that most other supermassive black holes are also directly orbited by stars.
Supermassive black holes may also be orbited by dust and gas, in what is known as an 'accretion disc'. This can become heated by friction, producing X-rays.
At the rotation axis of the black hole, matter from the accretion disc can be pushed away at the speed of light, in jets that can extend for thousands of light-years. As these jets run out of energy, they flare out, creating radio lobes. Supermassive black holes like this are known as active galactic nuclei.
Jets can also be produced from dormant black holes if stars get too close, and are pulled within the Schwarzschild radius. Evidence that stars can fall into supermassive black holes came in 2005, when hyper-velocity stars were discovered. These are thought to have been part of a binary star system that broke apart as it approached a supermassive black hole. As one star was captured, the other was pushed away at a velocity exceeding the escape velocity of the Galaxy.
In 2011, a jet was produced from an otherwise dormant supermassive black hole in a galaxy 3.9 billion light-years away. This was attributed to it capturing a star, in an event known as Swift J1644+57. This supermassive black hole is thought to be about 8 million times the mass of the Sun, and twice the mass of Sagittarius A*.
Animation showing supermassive black hole Swift J1644+57 producing a jet after destroying a star. Image credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab/Public domain.
Annotated stills from the animation showing how supermassive black hole Swift J1644+57 produced a jet after destroying a star (click to enlarge). Image credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Swift/Public domain.
3. ASASSN-14li ↑
Last month, Dr Sjoert van Velzen's team showed that supermassive black hole ASASSN-14li produced a jet within the first few weeks of consuming a star[1b]. ASASSN-14li is about 3 million times the mass of the Sun, about 3/4 of the mass of Sagittarius A*. It is situated in the galaxy PGC 043234, which is about 300 million light-years from Earth.
ASASSN-14li was first discovered in December 2014 using ASAS-SN (the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae). It was first observed using AMI-LA (the Arcminute Microkelvin Imager Large Array) that same month, and has been monitored for about four hours a week since then.
ASASSN-14li was found to be in the process of devouring a star earlier this year, and Dr van Velzen’s team began an even more detailed monitoring campaign within 22 days using AMI (the Arcminute Microkelvin Imager), and WSRT (the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope).
They found that the star formed an accretion disc around the supermassive black hole before being devoured, and produced a jet that was far less powerful than the jet produced by Swift J1644+57.
It's commonly suggested that supermassive black holes produce more powerful jets the faster the black hole spins[1c].
This does not appear to be the case for ASASSN-14li, however, and may instead be related to the magnetic field strength near the black hole’s event horizon[1d].
Scientists hope to gain a better understanding of ASASSN-14li, and other supermassive black holes, from future observations using more precise telescopes like the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). SKA is a radio telescope project that is due to be built in Australia and South Africa between 2018 and 2030. It will be 50 times more sensitive than any other radio instrument.
SKA will also be used to map a billion galaxies and measure dark energy, to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity, to map magnetic fields across the universe, and to search for evidence of life on potentially habitable exoplanets.