NASA Gets Unusually Close Glimpse of Black Hole Snacking on Star

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The event was first spotted on March 1, 2021, by the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), located at the Palomar Observatory in Southern California. It was subsequently studied by NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory and Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) telescope (which observes longer X-ray wavelengths than Swift).

Then, around 300 days after the event was first spotted, NASA’s NuSTAR began observing the system. Scientists were surprised when NuSTAR detected a corona – a cloud of hot plasma, or gas atoms with their electrons stripped away – since coronae usually appear with jets of gas that flow in opposite directions from a black hole. However, with the AT2021ehb tidal event, there were no jets, which made the corona observation unexpected. Coronae emit higher-energy X-rays than any other part of a black hole, but scientists don’t know where the plasma comes from or exactly how it gets so hot.

“We’ve never seen a tidal disruption event with X-ray emission like this without a jet present, and that’s really spectacular because it means we can potentially disentangle what causes jets and what causes coronae,” said Yuhan Yao, a graduate student at Caltech in Pasadena, California, and lead author of the new study. “Our observations of AT2021ehb are in agreement with the idea that magnetic fields have something to do with how the corona forms, and we want to know what’s causing that magnetic field to get so strong.”

Yao is also leading an effort to look for more tidal disruption events identified by ZTF and to then observe them with telescopes like Swift, NICER, and NuSTAR. Each new observation offers the potential for new insights or opportunities to confirm what has been observed in AT2021ehb and other tidal disruption events. “We want to find as many as we can,” Yao said.