An ultraviolet–optical flare from the tidal disruption of a helium-rich stellar core

Abstract

The flare of radiation from the tidal disruption and accretion of a star can be used as a marker for supermassive black holes that otherwise lie dormant and undetected in the centres of distant galaxies1. Previous candidate flares2,3,4,5,6 have had declining light curves in good agreement with expectations, but with poor constraints on the time of disruption and the type of star disrupted, because the rising emission was not observed. Recently, two ‘relativistic’ candidate tidal disruption events were discovered, each of whose extreme X-ray luminosity and synchrotron radio emission were interpreted as the onset of emission from a relativistic jet7,8,9,10. Here we report a luminous ultraviolet–optical flare from the nuclear region of an inactive galaxy at a redshift of 0.1696. The observed continuum is cooler than expected for a simple accreting debris disk, but the well-sampled rise and decay of the light curve follow the predicted mass accretion rate and can be modelled to determine the time of disruption to an accuracy of two days. The black hole has a mass of about two million solar masses, modulo a factor dependent on the mass and radius of the star disrupted. On the basis of the spectroscopic signature of ionized helium from the unbound debris, we determine that the disrupted star was a helium-rich stellar core.

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Figure 1: Optical spectrum.
Figure 2: Ultraviolet–optical light curve.
Figure 3: Spectral energy distribution.

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Acknowledgements

We thank H. Tananbaum for approving our Chandra Director’s Discretionary Time request. We are grateful to G. Lodato for providing the tidal disruption event models in tabular form, and to S. Moran for running software to calculate the host-galaxy K-corrections. We thank R. E. Williams for discussions on the line emission in the spectra. S.G. was supported by NASA through a Hubble Fellowship grant awarded by the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is operated by AURA Inc. for NASA. Partial support for this work was provided by the National Science Foundation. The PS1 survey has been made possible through contributions of the Institute for Astronomy, the University of Hawaii, the Pan-STARRS Project Office, the Max-Planck Society and its participating institutes, The Johns Hopkins University, Durham University, the University of Edinburgh, Queen’s University Belfast, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network Inc. and the National Central University of Taiwan, and by NASA under a grant issued through the Planetary Science Division of the NASA Science Mission Directorate. We acknowledge NASA’s support for construction, operation, and science analysis of the GALEX mission, which was developed in cooperation with Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales of France and the Korean Ministry of Science and Technology. Some of the observations reported here were obtained at the MMT Observatory, which is a joint facility of the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Arizona, and at the Liverpool Telescope, which is operated with financial support from the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council. The computations in this paper were run on the Odyssey cluster supported by the FAS Science Division Research Computing Group at Harvard University. R.J.F. is a Clay Fellow.

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S.G. designed the observations and the transient detection pipeline for the GALEX TDS, and measured the ultraviolet photometry of PS1-10jh. K.F. and J.D.N coordinated, and D.C.M. facilitated, the GALEX TDS observations. A.R. designed the PhotPipe transient detection pipeline hosted by Harvard/CfA for the PS1 Medium Deep Survey (MDS), and measured the optical photometry of PS1-10jh. R.C. designed, implemented and analysed the MMT optical spectroscopy observations, and contributed to the operation of PhotPipe and the visual inspection of transient alerts. E.B. proposed and facilitated the MMT observations. M.E.H., G.N., D.S. and R.J.F. contributed to the operation of PhotPipe and the visual inspection of transient alerts. P.J.C., R.J.F., G.H.M., L.C. and A.S. contributed to the MMT observations. S.J.S. designed, and K.S. operated, the transient pipeline for PS1 MDS hosted by Queen’s University Belfast. C.W.S., J.L.T. and W.M.W.-V. facilitated the transient pipelines for PS1 MDS. W.S.B., K.C.C., T.G., J.N.H., N.K., R.-P.K., E.A.M., J.S.M., P.A.P., C.W.S. and J.L.T. helped build the PS1 system. S.G. requested the Director’s Discretionary Time Chandra X-ray observation and analysed the data. A.L. obtained the Liverpool Telescope optical imaging observations and analysed the data, and stimulated discussions on the nature of the SED of PS1-10jh. S.G. analysed and modelled the multicolour light curve and the SED of PS1-10jh. T.H. and C.N. stimulated discussions on the nature of the disrupted star. The paper was organized and written by S.G., and all authors provided feedback on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to S. Gezari.

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This file contains Supplementary Text and Data 1-7, Supplementary Figures 1-5, Supplementary Tables 1-3 and additional references. (PDF 1280 kb)

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Gezari, S., Chornock, R., Rest, A. et al. An ultraviolet–optical flare from the tidal disruption of a helium-rich stellar core. Nature 485, 217–220 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10990

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