Letter

A tidal disruption event in the nearby ultra-luminous infrared galaxy F01004-2237

  • Nature Astronomy 1, Article number: 0061 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41550-017-0061
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Abstract

Tidal disruption events (TDEs), in which stars are gravitationally disrupted as they pass close to the supermassive black holes in the centres of galaxies 1 , are potentially important probes of strong gravity and accretion physics. Most TDEs have been discovered in large-area monitoring surveys of many thousands of galaxies, and a relatively low rate of one event every 104–105 years per galaxy has been deduced 2,​3,​4 . However, given the selection effects inherent in such surveys, considerable uncertainties remain about the conditions that favour TDEs. Here we report the detection of unusually strong and broad helium emission lines following a luminous optical flare in the nucleus of the nearby ultra-luminous infrared galaxy F01004-2237. This particular combination of variabi­lity and post-flare emission line spectrum is unlike any known supernova or active galactic nucleus. The most plausible explanation is a TDE — the first detected in a galaxy with an ongoing massive starburst. The fact that this event has been detected in repeat spectroscopic observations of a sample of 15 ultra-luminous infrared galaxies over a period of just 10 years suggests a much higher rate of TDEs in starburst galaxies than in the general galaxy population.

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Acknowledgements

The William Herschel Telescope is operated on the island of La Palma by the Isaac Newton Group in the Spanish Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canaria. Based on observations made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, obtained from the Data Archive at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., under NASA contract NAS 5-26555, these observations are associated with program no. 8190. This project made use of data obtained by the Catalina Sky Survey. C.T., R.S., M.R. and P.C. acknowledge financial support from the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council. We thank J. Maund for discussions about the possibility of a supernova origin for the flare.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Sheffield, Hounsfield Road, Sheffield S3 7RH, UK

    • C. Tadhunter
    • , R. Spence
    • , M. Rose
    • , J. Mullaney
    •  & P. Crowther

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Contributions

C.T. and R.S. led the project and the scientific interpretation of the data, and C.T. wrote the text of the paper. M.R. extracted the Catalina Sky Survey light curves and contributed to the general interpretation of the emission line spectra. J.M. and P.C. contributed equally to the analysis and interpretation of the results.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to C. Tadhunter.

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    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–2, Supplementary Tables 1–2 and Supplementary