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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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.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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)
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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