Earlier this year, a blinding flash of light shot across the night sky from an unknown source. But for millions around the world, the answer was obvious. Aliens. It’s always aliens. An unfamiliar light blinking in the sky? Aliens. A slightly unusual-looking drone or plane? Aliens. An unexpected sonic boom at five in the morning? Clearly aliens.
The truth, however, while every bit as terrifying, is slightly less Lovecraftian. Rather than extraterrestrials, the flash was the result of a supermassive black hole devouring a star that strayed a little too close to the world-eating orb.
But don’t panic just yet. The black hole isn’t anywhere close to Earth. It’s actually a staggering 8.5 billion light-years away.
Interestingly, this means the star was ripped to shreds by the black hole bottomless void eons ago, back when the universe was a just third of its current age. It took that long for the light generated by the cosmic explosion to travel far enough to be visible on Earth.
The beam of light created was first detected on February 11 by the Zwicky Transient Facility at the California Institute of Technology’s Palomar Observatory, raising a number of questions among astronomers.
A black hole and its gravitational tidal forces swallowing up a star isn’t an unusual phenomenon. The terrifying occurrence even has a name: tidal disruption event. This one, however, (called AT 2022cmc) was unlike anything scientists had ever seen before.
A particularly violent meal, the black hole’s destruction of the star caused a brighter explosion than any previously discovered. It also marked the most distant on record.
Flash Caused by Black Hole Jet Pointed Straight at Earth
According to astronomers studying the event, the beam was caused by something called a black hole jet. When the star fell victim to the void, the black hole released a massive burst of energy, sending a jet of material blasting through the vacuum of space at the speed of light.
Scientists believe AT 2022cmc was particularly bright because the powerful jet was pointed straight at Earth, creating a “Doppler-boosting” effect. On Wednesday, studies were published in both Nature Astronomy and Nature, detailing the event and its impact on black hole research.
“Gamma-ray bursts are the usual suspects for events like this,” Nature Astronomy study author Dr. Benjamin Gompertz said in a statement. “However, as bright as they are, there is only so much light a collapsing star can produce. Because AT 2022cmc was so bright and lasted so long, we knew that something truly gargantuan must be powering it. A supermassive black hole.”
Researchers found that AT 2022cmc was “100 times more powerful than the most powerful gamma-ray burst afterglow” previously observed, according to Dheeraj Pasham, lead study author of the Nature Astronomy paper.
“Astronomy is changing rapidly,” added black hole researcher and study author Igor Andreoni. “Scientists can use AT 2022cmc as a model to find more disruptive events from distant black holes.”