In late March 2011, NASA’s Swift satellite alerted astronomers to intense and unusual high-energy flares from a new source in the constellation Draco. They soon realized that the source, which is now known as Swift J1644+57, was the result of a truly extraordinary event — the awakening of a distant galaxy’s dormant black hole as it shredded and consumed a star. The galaxy is so far away that the radiation from the blast has traveled 3.9 billion years before reaching Earth.
Most galaxies, including our own, possess a central supersized black hole weighing millions of times the sun’s mass. According to the new studies, the black hole in the galaxy hosting Swift J1644+57 may be twice the mass of the four-million-solar-mass black hole lurking at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. As a star falls toward a black hole, it is ripped apart by intense tides. The gas is corralled into a disk that swirls around the black hole and becomes rapidly heated to temperatures of millions of degrees.
The innermost gas in the disk spirals toward the black hole, where rapid motion and magnetism creates dual, oppositely directed “funnels” through which some particles may escape. Particle jets driving matter at velocities greater than 80-90 percent the speed of light form along the black hole’s spin axis. In the case of Swift J1644+57, one of these jets happened to point straight at Earth.
Theoretical studies of tidally disrupted stars suggested that they would appear as flares at optical and ultraviolet energies. The brightness and energy of a black hole’s jet is greatly enhanced when viewed head-on. The phenomenon, called relativistic beaming, explains why Swift J1644+57 was seen at X-ray energies and appeared so strikingly luminous.
When first detected on March 28, the flares were initially assumed to signal a gamma-ray burst, one of the nearly daily short blasts of high-energy radiation often associated with the death of a massive star and the birth of a black hole in the distant universe. But as the emission continued to brighten and flare, astronomers realized that the most plausible explanation was the tidal disruption of a sun-like star seen as beamed emission.
On March 28, 2011, NASA’s Swift detected intense X-ray flares thought to be caused by a black hole devouring a star. In one model, illustrated here, a sun-like star on an eccentric orbit plunges too close to its galaxy’s central black hole. About half of the star’s mass feeds an accretion disk around the black hole, which in turn powers a particle jet that beams radiation toward Earth.
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