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A very luminous jet from the disruption of a star by a massive black hole

A Publisher Correction to this article was published on 09 January 2023

This article has been updated

Abstract

Tidal disruption events (TDEs) are bursts of electromagnetic energy that are released when supermassive black holes at the centres of galaxies violently disrupt a star that passes too close1. TDEs provide a window through which to study accretion onto supermassive black holes; in some rare cases, this accretion leads to launching of a relativistic jet2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9, but the necessary conditions are not fully understood. The best-studied jetted TDE so far is Swift J1644+57, which was discovered in γ-rays, but was too obscured by dust to be seen at optical wavelengths. Here we report the optical detection of AT2022cmc, a rapidly fading source at cosmological distance (redshift z = 1.19325) the unique light curve of which transitioned into a luminous plateau within days. Observations of a bright counterpart at other wavelengths, including X-ray, submillimetre and radio, supports the interpretation of AT2022cmc as a jetted TDE containing a synchrotron ‘afterglow’, probably launched by a supermassive black hole with spin greater than approximately 0.3. Using four years of Zwicky Transient Facility10 survey data, we calculate a rate of \(0.0{2}_{-0.01}^{+0.04}\) Gpc−3 yr−1 for on-axis jetted TDEs on the basis of the luminous, fast-fading red component, thus providing a measurement complementary to the rates derived from X-ray and radio observations11. Correcting for the beaming angle effects, this rate confirms that approximately 1 per cent of TDEs have relativistic jets. Optical surveys can use AT2022cmc as a prototype to unveil a population of jetted TDEs.

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Fig. 1: AT2022cmc light curve and images in the near infrared, optical and ultraviolet.
Fig. 2: AT2022cmc is among the most luminous extragalactic transients ever observed.
Fig. 3: Spectra at rest frame for redshift z = 1.19325.
Fig. 4: Our interpretation of AT2022cmc as a jetted TDE.

Data availability

Photometry and spectroscopy of AT2022cmc will be made available via the WISeREP public database at https://www.wiserep.org/object/21988. Facilities that make all their data available in public archives, either promptly or after a proprietary period, include: Very Large Telescope, Very Large Array, Liverpool Telescope, Blanco Telescope, W. M. Keck Observatory, Gemini Observatory, Palomar 48-inch/ZTF, the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer, and the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory. Data from the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System were obtained from a public source.

Code availability

The ZTFReST12,37 code is publicly available. Upon request, the corresponding author will provide the code (primarily in Python) used to produce the figures.

Change history

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Acknowledgements

We thank D. R. Pasham, K. Burdge, D. Cook, A. Cikota and S. Oates. M.W.C. acknowledges support from the National Science Foundation with grant numbers PHY-2010970 and OAC-2117997. E.C.K. acknowledges support from the G.R.E.A.T .research environment and the Wenner-Gren Foundations. M. Bulla acknowledges support from the Swedish Research Council (reg. no. 2020-03330). H.K. and T.A. thank the LSSTC Data Science Fellowship Program, which is funded by LSSTC, NSF Cybertraining Grant no. 1829740, the Brinson Foundation, and the Moore Foundation; their participation in the programme has benefited this work. W.L. was supported by the Lyman Spitzer, Jr. Fellowship at Princeton University. M.R. has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 759194 - USNAC). G.L., P. Charalampopoulos and M.P. were supported by a research grant (19054) from VILLUM FONDEN. P.T.H.P. is supported by the research programme of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). D.A.K. acknowledges support from Spanish National Research Project RTI2018-098104-J-I00 (GRBPhot). The material is based on work supported by NASA under award no. 80GSFC17M0002. A.J.N. acknowledges DST-INSPIRE Faculty Fellowship (IFA20-PH-259) for supporting this research. I.A. is a Neil Gehrels Fellow. This work has been supported by the research project grant ‘Understanding the Dynamic Universe’ funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation under Dnr KAW 2018.0067. Based on observations obtained with the Samuel Oschin Telescope 48-inch and the 60-inch Telescope at the Palomar Observatory as part of the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) project. ZTF is supported by the National Science Foundation under grant no. AST-1440341 and a collaboration including Caltech, IPAC, the Weizmann Institute for Science, the Oskar Klein Center at Stockholm University, the University of Maryland, the University of Washington (UW), Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron and Humboldt University, Los Alamos National Laboratories, the TANGO Consortium of Taiwan, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories. Operations are conducted by Caltech Optical Observatories, IPAC, and UW. The work is partly based on the observations made with the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC), installed in the Spanish Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, on the island of La Palma. We acknowledge all co-investigators of our GTC proposal. SED Machine is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant no. 1106171. The ZTF forced-photometry service was funded under the Heising–Simons Foundation grant no. 12540303 (PI: M.J.G.). The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2013-2016) under grant agreement no. 312430 (OPTICON). Based on observations collected at the European Southern Observatory under ESO programme 106.21T6.015. This work made use of data from the GROWTH-India Telescope (GIT) set up by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) and the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB). It is located at the Indian Astronomical Observatory (Hanle), operated by IIA. We acknowledge funding by the IITB alumni batch of 1994, which partially supports operations of the telescope. Telescope technical details are available at https://sites.google.com/view/growthindia. Based on observations made with the Nordic Optical Telescope, owned in collaboration by the University of Turku and Aarhus University, and operated jointly by Aarhus University, the University of Turku and the University of Oslo, representing Denmark, Finland and Norway, the University of Iceland and Stockholm University at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos, La Palma, Spain, of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias. The Liverpool Telescope is operated on the island of La Palma by Liverpool John Moores University in the Spanish Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias with financial support from the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc. Partly based on observations collected at Centro Astronómico Hispano en Andalucía (CAHA) at Calar Alto, operated jointly by Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (CSIC) and Junta de Andalucía. The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope is operated by the East Asian Observatory on behalf of The National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand and the Center for Astronomical Mega-Science (as well as the National Key R&D Program of China with no. 2017YFA0402700). Additional funding support is provided by the Science and Technology Facilities Council of the UK and participating universities and organizations in the UK and Canada. Additional funds for the construction of SCUBA-2 were provided by the Canada Foundation for Innovation. The JCMT data reported here were obtained under project M22AP030 (principal investigator D.A.P.). We thank J. Silva, A.-A. Acohido, H. Pena, and the JCMT staff for the prompt support of these observations. The Starlink software is currently supported by the East Asian Observatory. The Submillimeter Array is a joint project between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics and is funded by the Smithsonian Institution and the Academia Sinica. This work is based on observations carried out under project number W21BK with the IRAM NOEMA Interferometer. IRAM is supported by INSU/CNRS (France), MPG (Germany) and IGN (Spain). Based on observations obtained at the international Gemini Observatory, a programme of NSF’s NOIRLab, which is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation. On behalf of the Gemini Observatory partnership: the National Science Foundation (USA), National Research Council (Canada), Agencia Nacional de Investigación y Desarrollo (Chile), Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación (Argentina), Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia, Inovações e Comunicações (Brazil), and Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (Republic of Korea). This work was enabled by observations made from the Gemini North telescope, located within the Maunakea Science Reserve and adjacent to the summit of Maunakea. We are grateful for the privilege of observing the Universe from a place that is unique in both its astronomical quality and its cultural significance.

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Authors and Affiliations

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Contributions

All the authors contributed to the scientific interpretation of the source and reviewed the manuscript. I.A. and M.W.C. discovered the source, led the follow-up observations and were the primary writers of the manuscript. D.A.P. conducted radio and submillimetre data acquisition and analysis, LT data acquisition and analysis, and contributed significantly to the source analysis. Y.Y. conducted the X-ray and ultraviolet data analysis. W.L. led the theoretical modelling of the source. A.Y.Q.H., R.A.P., K.P.M., G.C.A., S.B., P. Chandra, N.T., I.A.S., M. Bremer, M.K., A.J.N. and G.P. conducted radio and submillimetre data acquisition and analysis. M.M.K. is a ZTF science group leader, contributed to the source follow-up and interpretation. S.R.K. contributed to the paper writing. S.B.C. was PI for the HST observations and conducted photometric data analysis. S.A., T.A., C.F., V.R.K., K.K.D., J.v.R., M.J.G., A.C.R. and M.J.L. conducted optical and near infrared follow-up observations and data analysis with Keck and P200 telescopes. A.R., C.D.K., J.F. and F.V. conducted DECam observations, data processing and analysis. J.Z., J.C., D.D., A.M., S. Goode, K.A. and R.R.-H. conducted DECam observations. Q.W. conducted the ATLAS data analysis. E.H., S. Gezari, M. Bulla, M.C.M. and J.S.B. contributed to the source interpretation. J.S. conducted follow-up observations with NOT and P60. P. Charalampopoulos, G.L., M.P. and E.P. conducted follow-up observations with NOT. S.S. conducted follow-up observations with multiple telescopes and led analysis on the host limits. A.S.-C. worked on optical rate calculations. J.J.S. and V.R. worked on radio rate calculations. L.I., V.D., S.D.V., A.L. and N.T. conducted VLT spectroscopic observations and data analysis. S.C. conducted Swift XRT data analysis. A.d.U.P. conducted near-infrared observations, photometry and spectroscopic line strength analysis. C.T. and J.F.A.F. conducted near-infrared observations with GTC. D.A.K. provided GRB light curves and significantly contributed to the data analysis. H.K. and V.B. conducted GIT observations and data analysis. E.B. conducted searches for γ-ray counterparts to the transient. R.D.S. contributed to the multi-messenger interpretation of the transient. P.T.H.P. conducted the Bayesian optical light curve analysis. D.L.K. contributed to the source interpretation and thoroughly reviewed the paper. R.R., B.R., R.R.L., A.A.M., M.S.M., E.C.B., G.N., Y.S., M.R. and E.C.K. are ZTF and Fritz marshal builders. A.T. simulated the Swift GRB detection analysis.

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Correspondence to Igor Andreoni or Michael W. Coughlin.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Time-dependent long-wavelength spectral evolution of AT2022cmc from observations with the VLA, NOEMA, SMA, JCMT, and ATCA.

a, Co-eval energy distributions for AT2022cmc. Measurements are shown as circles with error bars (a 10% systematic component has been included) colour-coded by observation epoch. A synchrotron broken power-law model has been fit to the data assuming a spectral index (Fννα) of α = +2 at low frequencies (ν < νa), α = 1/3 at mid-frequencies (νa < ν < νm), and α = −1 at high frequencies (νm < ν). For the SEDs at 7.0, 11.6, 20.4 and 45.3 days (observer-frame) the model is fit with all parameters free to vary; for the remaining epoch the break frequencies are fixed based on a plausible extrapolation/interpolation of the other epochs and only the flux scale is fit. b, Evolution of the spectral break frequencies. Larger circles with error bars show measured break frequencies; the remaining points are interpolated. c, Light curves at 9.5, 102 and 235 GHz with predictions of the interpolated SED model overplotted. (Unfilled circles show additional measurements not used in the co-eval SEDs.) The general evolution of the SED and light curve are very similar to what was seen in Swift J1644144, with a low-frequency SED that remains self-absorbed out to late times.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Duration and luminosity of optical transients compared to AT2022cmc.

Optical transients include superluminous supernovae (SNe) (SLSN), Type Ia SNe (SN Ia), core-collapse SNe145,146,147, luminous fast blue optical transients (LFBOTs)43,44,47,48,49,147,148, GRB afterglows 148,149 and the kilonova AT2017gfo41,150,151,152,153.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Line strength diagram.

The diagram compares the equivalent widths (EWs) of the absorption features measured in the X-shooter spectrum of AT2022cmc (in red) with a sample of GRB afterglow spectra. The thick black line marks the average strength of the sample and the dotted lines the standard deviation in log-normal space. The shaded features are those for which we cannot provide reliable measurements because they fall outside the spectral range of our data, or because they are in a region of the spectrum affected by a very low signal to noise ratio or by telluric features. The features seen in the line of sight of AT2022cmc have very similar strength as those of a typical GRB. LSP, line strength parameter.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Marginalized histograms for the optical light curve modelling.

The modelling is discussed in Methods section ‘Optical light curve modelling’. The parameter estimates given correspond to median and 90% Bayesian credible intervals, as marked by the blue dashed vertical and horizontal lines. The best-fit (maximum likelihood) parameters are marked with the orange lines. The 68% (95%) credible regions are coloured in dark (light) blue.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Distribution of the peak absolute magnitudes (r-band) for a population of TDEs31.

Featureless TDEs are consistently brighter than TDEs that show broad features in their optical spectra. The absolute magnitude of AT2022cmc when the slow/blue component dominates falls in the ballpark of featureless TDE peak luminosities, which supports a possible connection between TDEs with relativistic jets and the class of featureless TDEs.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Evolution of the power-law photon index ΓX in the first seven XRT observations.

All measurements are consistent with the best-fit ΓX in the first NICER observation (Methods section ‘Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer’), as marked by the horizontal dotted line.

Extended Data Table 1 Equivalent line widths
Extended Data Table 2 XRT observations of AT2022cmc

Supplementary information

Peer Review File

Supplementary Table 1

Infrared/optical/ultraviolet photometry. The values are not corrected for the Galactic extinction. The second column reports the rest frame time from the first ZTF detection.

Supplementary Table 2

Radio observations. Δt is observer-frame days since the first ZTF detection epoch, calculated at the observation midpoint. ν indicates the central frequency.

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Andreoni, I., Coughlin, M.W., Perley, D.A. et al. A very luminous jet from the disruption of a star by a massive black hole. Nature 612, 430–434 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-05465-8

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