Scientists discover a black hole consuming a star through the utilization of a new data analysis tool on Swift.

Scientists using NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory have made an exciting discovery: a black hole that’s continuously consuming a star similar to our Sun. This phenomenon, known as a tidal disruption event, occurs when a star orbits too close to a black hole. The immense gravitational forces from the black hole tear the star apart, creating a stream of gas and other cosmic material. One end of the stream swings into the black hole, while the other end is thrown out of the system. This process creates a bright burst of light, which illuminates the galaxy and allows for its discovery.

The specific black hole and tidal disruption event discovered by the scientists, referred to as Swift J023017.0+283603 or Swift J0230 for short, is just one part of this story. The groundbreaking discovery was made using a new data analysis method from Swift’s X-ray telescope (XRT) instrument. This technique discovers new possibilities for scientific research using Swift, a three-telescope space observatory designed to observe highly energetic cosmic phenomena at multiple wavelengths.

Phil Evans, a member of the Swift team and the lead author of the study, praised the mission’s ability to adapt to new areas of astrophysics and its capacity for “cool science.” Tidal disruption events are fascinating cosmic phenomena that occur when a star gets too close to a black hole. The star is torn apart by extreme tidal forces, creating bright flares of multi-wavelength light when the gas stream interacts with a disk of material already orbiting the black hole. Scientists study these flares to understand the characteristics and behaviors of tidal disruption events.

Not all tidal disruption events result in the immediate destruction of the star. In some cases, a star orbits a black hole at a distance where the tidal forces are not strong enough to completely destroy it. Instead, the star loses gas and material to the black hole over time until it disintegrates. These events are known as partial or repeating tidal disruptions. Swift J0230 is one such event.

Other examples of repeating tidal disruptions have been observed, such as an event that occurred every 114 days and another that happened every nine hours. These events provide valuable insights into how different types of stars interact with black holes of varying sizes.

The discovery of Swift J0230 was made possible by a new XRT data analysis program called the Swift X-ray Transient Detector. This automated catalog of all XRT observations allows scientists to compare new data with previous observations, enabling them to quickly identify changes and coordinate additional observations. The program proved to be a useful tool for studying highly energetic cosmic phenomena like tidal disruption events.

Swift, originally designed to study gamma-ray bursts, has proven its versatility over the years by observing a wide range of cosmic events and objects, including comets and tidal disruption events. The recent publication of Evans et al.’s results in the journal Nature Astronomy further highlights the spacecraft’s capabilities.

In conclusion, the discovery of a black hole snacking on a star has opened up new avenues for scientific research using NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory. By studying tidal disruption events, scientists can gain valuable insights into the behavior and characteristics of black holes and their interactions with stars. The groundbreaking data analysis method used in this discovery has demonstrated the potential for future discoveries and advancements in our understanding of the universe.