Groundbreaking Discovery: A Star’s Cataclysmic End Near Black Hole in Ancient Galaxy

by Santiago Fernandez
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Stellar Destruction

A unique method of star destruction, leading to the creation of a gamma-ray burst (GRB), has been uncovered by an international team of astrophysicists headed by Radboud University, Netherlands. (Artistic depiction of a gamma-ray burst.) Credit: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/M. Garlick/M. Zamani

Researchers in the field of astrophysics have stumbled upon a previously unknown mechanism that leads to the obliteration of stars and the creation of gamma-ray bursts. This mechanism involves stellar collisions in the highly concentrated areas near supermassive black holes within old galaxies. This discovery, featured in Nature Astronomy, sheds light on the phenomenon of star destruction and may indicate unidentified sources of gravitational waves.

While probing the origins of an intense gamma-ray burst (GRB), the multinational astrophysicist team may have found a new method through which a star can be demolished.

Although the majority of GRBs result from the explosion of massive stars or the merging of neutron stars, the team concluded that GRB 191019A arose from the collision of stars or stellar remnants in the overcrowded space near a supermassive black hole in an old galaxy. This chaotic environment suggests an until now theorized but unobserved method of star destruction and GRB production.

The research was published in the Nature Astronomy journal on June 22. The team, headed by Radboud University, included astronomers from Northwestern University.

Wen-fai Fong, a Northwestern astrophysicist and co-author of the study, stated, “For every hundred usual gamma-ray burst events, there’s one oddity that perplexes us. But it’s these anomalies that reveal the incredible variety of cosmic explosions.”

Co-author Giacomo Fragione, also a Northwestern astrophysicist, said, “The unearthing of these remarkable phenomena within dense stellar systems, particularly those surrounding supermassive black holes in galaxy cores, is undeniably thrilling. This extraordinary discovery gives us an enticing peek into the complex dynamics operating within these cosmic environments, confirming them as epicenters of events that would otherwise seem impossible.”

This artistic depiction demonstrates how astronomers, using the Gemini South telescope operated by NSF’s NOIRLab, studying a powerful gamma-ray burst (GRB), may have found a never-before-seen method to obliterate a star. Unlike typical GRBs, caused by the explosion of massive stars or accidental merging of neutron stars, researchers concluded that this GRB originated from the collision of stars or stellar remnants in the tightly packed surroundings of a supermassive black hole within an ancient galaxy.

At Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Fong serves as an assistant professor of physics and astronomy and is a member of the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA). Fragione is a research assistant professor in CIERA. Other Northwestern co-authors include Anya Nugent and Jillian Rastinejad, who are both Ph.D. students in astronomy and members of Fong’s research group.

Stars typically meet their end in one of three predictable ways, based on their mass. Relatively low-mass stars like our sun, shed their outer layers in their old age and fade to become white dwarf stars. More massive stars, on the contrary, burn brighter, explode faster, and end up in spectacular supernovae explosions, giving birth to ultra-dense entities like neutron stars and black holes. The third scenario involves a collision when two such stellar remnants form a binary system.

However, the new study suggests a fourth possible scenario.

“Our findings demonstrate that stars can reach their end in the densest regions of the universe,

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Stellar Destruction

What did the astrophysicists discover?

The astrophysicists discovered a new mechanism for star destruction and the generation of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) through stellar collisions near supermassive black holes in ancient galaxies.

How was this discovery made?

The discovery was made by studying a specific gamma-ray burst (GRB) event, GRB 191019A, which was found to originate from the collision of stars or stellar remnants in the vicinity of a supermassive black hole at the core of an ancient galaxy.

What does this discovery reveal about star deaths?

This discovery enhances our understanding of star deaths by suggesting a previously unknown method of star destruction. It shows that stars can be demolished through collisions in dense environments near supermassive black holes.

How does this discovery relate to gravitational waves?

The discovery might point to previously unknown sources of gravitational waves. Understanding the mechanisms behind star destruction and GRB generation can provide insights into the formation of gravitational-wave emitting sources.

Why is this discovery significant?

The discovery of this new mechanism for star destruction and GRB generation challenges existing theories and highlights the remarkable diversity of cosmic explosions. It also sheds light on the dynamics of dense stellar systems surrounding supermassive black holes in ancient galaxies.

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