3.8 billion light years away in the constellation Draco deep inside the centre of an inconspicuous galaxy, something happened at 12:57:45 on the 28th of March 2011 that flooded the SWIFT satellite’s sensors with x-rays, and in the process sent astronomers scrambling to get a glimpse with their ground and space-based observatories.
If you look at the light curve provided by SWIFT, the x-ray brightness fluctuates considerably over a period of days. You get the first massive burst, then it calms, and then you get some more bursts days after the original event. This is very different from GRBs, such events usually consist of a huge burst of x-rays and then a dimmer afterglow of a whole variety of radiation before fading from view over a period of hours at the most. So if it isn’t a GRB, then what is it?
The massive bursts happen to be coming from the centre of the galaxy, lighting up the heart of the galaxy with the power of 1 trillion suns; outshining the galaxy itself 100 times over. Like most of the galaxy population, a super massive black hole (SMBH) happens to lurk here. Could it be that the black hole has woken up? Active galaxies emit a huge amount of radiation, including X-rays, right across the electromagnetic spectrum after all.
With data from various surveys – including FERMI and ROSAT – astronomers have concluded that before this event there has been no sign of activity from the SMBH for the past 20 years at least, so for it to flare up without warning is very unusual!
So far the most popular theory with the most evidence suggests a main sequence star with a mass equivalent to our sun’s wandered too close to the gravitational grip of the SMBH; a monster weighing in at 107 solar masses. During a single pass it would have had to put up with one side of it being stretched and tugged at more than the other, until the gravitational pull was so powerful that the star started to get torn apart.
The matter from the disintegrated star has now settled to form a temporary accretion disk that provides fodder for the black hole. The material in the disk started to interact, and a mixture of friction and magnetic fields collimated the radiation into jets which we view as head-on, drowning out the host galaxy with its luminosity.
If this is indeed the case, the bursts of radiation seen with SWIFT and other observatories should cease after a period of months to just over a year. This would show that the star is slowly getting devoured or spat out from the accretion disk, until one day there will be no fodder for the black hole at all, and it will settle back down into its dormant state and probably won’t wake up again until the galaxy merges, or another star falls prey to its gravity well.
There is another theory I’ve picked up from Arxiv by Dokuchaev et al. which is rather more exotic:
Instead of a star being destroyed via accretion, something massively destructive happened to a star cluster near the centre of the galaxy… But first, let me focus on GRBs.
There are two types of Gamma Ray Bursts; short GRBS and long GRBs. So, what’s the difference?
Long GRBs are the most common. They’re likely to come from Type 2 supernovae, the type of supernova you get when a high mass star implodes, leaving only a core or a black hole behind. The insanely bright jets of gamma rays are thought to come from the poles of stars that are collapsing into black holes and last up to a few minutes.
Short GRBs are less common, and are likely to come from the merger of two neutron stars or a neutron star colliding with a stellar mass black hole. They last less than two seconds, but are still as destructive to anything that lies in their path as the Long GRBS.
The star cluster mentioned earlier would have a whole variety of stars to choose from, including stellar remnants such as the ones mentioned above. The stars with the most mass will migrate to the centre of the cluster, until eventually the gravitational pull of each star in the vicinity causes them to interact with each other rather destructively…
Neutron stars start to collide with each other and stellar mass black holes, creating plenty of Short GRBs as they go along. The many GRBs account for the repeating flares recorded by SWIFT and other observatories. In the period of two days 7% of the stars that make up the cluster collapsed into an accreting super massive black hole!
If this theory is correct the black hole won’t shut down any time soon like in the most popular theory, but will carry on for many years as it gains in mass over time from devouring the remainder of the star cluster and perhaps beyond.
However, I’m standing by the first theory Either way there’s some very interesting speculation surrounding this amazing object!
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