Relativistic jet activity from the tidal disruption of a star by a massive black hole

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Abstract

Supermassive black holes have powerful gravitational fields with strong gradients that can destroy stars that get too close1,2, producing a bright flare in ultraviolet and X-ray spectral regions from stellar debris that forms an accretion disk around the black hole3,4,5,6,7. The aftermath of this process may have been seen several times over the past two decades in the form of sparsely sampled, slowly fading emission from distant galaxies8,9,10,11,12,13,14, but the onset of the stellar disruption event has not hitherto been observed. Here we report observations of a bright X-ray flare from the extragalactic transient Swift J164449.3+573451. This source increased in brightness in the X-ray band by a factor of at least 10,000 since 1990 and by a factor of at least 100 since early 2010. We conclude that we have captured the onset of relativistic jet activity from a supermassive black hole. A companion paper15 comes to similar conclusions on the basis of radio observations. This event is probably due to the tidal disruption of a star falling into a supermassive black hole, but the detailed behaviour differs from current theoretical models of such events.

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Figure 1: Swift BAT and XRT light curves for the first three days of observations.
Figure 2: Swift XRT light curve of Swift J164449.3+573451 for the first 7 weeks of observations.
Figure 3: The spectral energy distribution of Swift J164449.3+573451.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge support from the following funding agencies: NASA, NSF and DOE (US); the UK Space Agency; ASI, INAF and INFN (Italy); the Autonomous Region of Sardinia; MEXT, KEK and JAXA (Japan); CRI/NRF/MEST (Korea); NSC and Academia Sinica (Taiwan); CEA/Irfu, IN2P3/CNRS and CNES (France); and the K. A. Wallenberg Foundation, the Swedish Research Council and the National Space Board (Sweden). We thank the Swift, Fermi and MAXI operation teams; and we thank A. Read for help with the most recent XMM slew data. We acknowledge the contribution of pre-publication upper limits by the VERITAS Collaboration. Finally, we acknowledge the use of public data from the Swift and Fermi data archives (http://heasarc.nasa.gov/docs/swift/archive/ and http://fermi.gsfc.nasa.gov/ssc/, respectively), as well as data supplied by the UK Swift Science Data Centre at the University of Leicester. E.T. is a NASA Postdoctoral Fellow.

Author information

D.N.B., J.A.K. and M.E. composed the text, using inputs from the other co-authors. Theoretical interpretation was provided by G.G., B.Z., M.E. and P.M., with contributions by A.D.F., S. Campana and N.G.; J.A.K., V.M., K.L.P., J.P.O., P.R., S. Campana, A.P.B., V.D’E., P.E., P.A.E. and G.I. processed and analysed the Swift XRT data. T.S., J.R.C. and H.A.K. processed and analysed the Swift BAT data. Swift UVOT data were processed and analysed by A.A.B., M.M.C., S.T.H. and F.E.M. Ground-based optical/NIR data were obtained with the TNG, BOAO, LOAO, CFHT, UKIRT and Maidanak Observatory telescopes, and were provided, reduced and analysed by S. Covino, P.D’A., D.F., K.Y.H., M.I., H.D.J., Y.J., Y.-B.J., J.H.K., W.-K.P., H.-I.S., G.T., Y. Urata and L.A.A. Fermi LAT data analysis was performed by R.C., N.O., J.S.P. and E.T.; K.H., N.K., H.N., M.S., Y. Ueda and R.U. processed and analysed the MAXI data. A.D.F. provided liaison with the VERITAS Collaboration. J.M.G. and P.G. provided analysis of ROSAT archival data, and J.P.O. provided analysis of archival XMM data. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Correspondence to D. N. Burrows.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

Swift data are available from the NASA HEASARC (http://swift.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/swift/archive/) or from mirror sites in the UK (http://www.swift.ac.uk/swift_portal/archive.php) and Italy (http://swift.asdc.asi.it/).

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

The file contains Supplementary Observations and Data Analysis, a Supplementary Discussion (see Contents list for full details), Supplementary Tables 1-13, Supplementary Figures 1-17 with legends and additional references. (PDF 3538 kb)

Supplementary Data

The file shows Supplementary Dataset 1 (light curve shown in Figure 2). (TXT 343 kb)

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Burrows, D., Kennea, J., Ghisellini, G. et al. Relativistic jet activity from the tidal disruption of a star by a massive black hole. Nature 476, 421–424 (2011) doi:10.1038/nature10374

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