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Flows of X-ray gas reveal the disruption of a star by a massive black hole

Abstract

Tidal forces close to massive black holes can violently disrupt stars that make a close approach. These extreme events are discovered via bright X-ray1,2,3,4 and optical/ultraviolet5,6 flares in galactic centres. Prior studies based on modelling decaying flux trends have been able to estimate broad properties, such as the mass accretion rate6,7. Here we report the detection of flows of hot, ionized gas in high-resolution X-ray spectra of a nearby tidal disruption event, ASASSN-14li in the galaxy PGC 043234. Variability within the absorption-dominated spectra indicates that the gas is relatively close to the black hole. Narrow linewidths indicate that the gas does not stretch over a large range of radii, giving a low volume filling factor. Modest outflow speeds of a few hundred kilometres per second are observed; these are below the escape speed from the radius set by variability. The gas flow is consistent with a rotating wind from the inner, super-Eddington region of a nascent accretion disk, or with a filament of disrupted stellar gas near to the apocentre of an elliptical orbit. Flows of this sort are predicted by fundamental analytical theory8 and more recent numerical simulations7,9,10,11,12,13,14.

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Figure 1: The multi-wavelength light curves of ASASSN-14li clearly signal a tidal disruption event.
Figure 2: The high-resolution X-ray spectra of ASASSN-14li reveal blueshifted absorption lines.
Figure 3: The temperature of the blackbody continuum emission from ASASSN-14li is steady over time.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Chandra Director B. Wilkes and the Chandra team for accepting our request for Director’s Discretionary Time, XMM-Newton Director N. Schartel and the XMM-Newton team for executing our approved target-of-opportunity program, and Swift Director N. Gehrels and the Swift team for monitoring this important source. J.M.M. is supported by NASA funding, through Chandra and XMM-Newton guest observer programs. The SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research is supported by The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). J.J.D. was supported by NASA contract NAS8-03060 to the Chandra X-ray Center. W.P.M. is grateful for support by the University of Alabama Research Stimulation Program.

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Authors

Contributions

J.M.M. led the Chandra and XMM-Newton data reduction and analysis, with contributions from J.S.K., J.J.D. and J.d.P. M.T.R. led the Swift data reduction and analysis (with help from S.B.C., S.G. and R.M.). M.C.M., E.R.-R. and J.G. provided theoretical insights. G.B., K.G., J.I., A.L., D.M., W.P.M., P.O’B., F.P., T.S. and N.T. contributed to the discussion and interpretation.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jon M. Miller.

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Miller, J., Kaastra, J., Miller, M. et al. Flows of X-ray gas reveal the disruption of a star by a massive black hole. Nature 526, 542–545 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature15708

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