Scientists from MIPT, the University of Oxford, and the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences estimated the number of stars disrupted by solitary supermassive black holes in galactic centers formed due to mergers of galaxies containing supermassive black holes. The astrophysicists found out whether gravitational effects arising as two black holes draw closer to one another can explain why we observe fewer stars being captured by black holes than basic theoretical models predict.
In their study published in The Astrophysical Journal, the researchers looked into the interplay of various dynamic mechanisms affecting the number of stars in a galaxy that are captured per unit time (tidal disruption rate).
Disruption of stars
Disruption of a star by tidal forces. As the matter that makes up the star falls onto the black hole, it emits X-rays. The inset shows data collected by three telescopes, with the brightness of X-rays plotted on the vertical axis against the wavelength on the horizontal axis.
Image courtesy of NASA/CXC/U. Michigan/J. Miller et al.; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss
Most of the galaxies—approximately 90 percent of them—remain “silent” because there are no gas clouds in them and so there is no matter for the black hole to feed on, except for stars that occasionally stray too close to it. When this happens, the star is pulled apart by tidal forces, experiencing what is known as spaghettification, and astronomers detect a tidal disruption event (TDE).
Stellar disruption simulation:
Credit: PSU Science Media Relations and Public Information
Assume a spherical galaxy in a vacuum…
The simplest theoretical model involves a galaxy whose nucleus is spherical in shape and has a supermassive black hole at its center. The black hole is orbited by stars that change the direction of their motion as they pass by one another, the way billiard balls bounce off one another when they collide on the table.
A star whose velocity vector has fallen into the loss cone. BH denotes a black hole, and rcapt is the radius of capture.
This image appears on the authors’ website with computational software: http://td.lpi.ru/~eugvas/losscone/
The slingshot effect
At present, there is only one mechanism discussed in published sources that could be responsible for the fact that fewer stars are captured than expected. Curiously, it requires that most of the low-angular-momentum stars vanish, so to speak. But let us first examine an analogous case involving gas diffusion. Suppose there are gas molecules in random motion contained inside a vessel whose walls can absorb the molecules.
The law of conservation of energy implies that when a star is accelerated (i.e., receives additional kinetic energy), the energy of the binary black hole must be reduced. As a result, the two black holes draw closer to one another and begin to merge. Eventually, when the merger is almost complete, some of the energy is radiated outward in the form of gravitational waves, as demonstrated by this recent sensational discovery.
Two merging black holes. During the initial stage of the merger known as the inspiral, the black holes orbit a common center of mass gradually coming closer to one another. Then the merger proper occurs and most of the gravitational waves are emitted. The red and blue lines at the bottom of the image represent the gravitational signal associated with a black hole merger. Following the merger proper, the now single black hole undergoes oscillations referred to as the ringdown.
Image courtesy of LIGO, NSF, Aurore Simonnet (Sonoma State U.)
A nonspherical galaxy in a vacuum
Although a galaxy merger can be accompanied by a decrease in the rate of star disruption, the opposite effect has also been observed. It has to do with the fact that any galactic nucleus which is a product of a merger is slightly nonspherical in shape. In a nonspherical nucleus, stars are more thoroughly intermixed; hence, there are more stars whose orbits lie close to the black hole. This means that more stars are available to be captured and the TDE rate goes up, in spite of the slingshot effect. To find out how the interplay of these two opposing factors impacts the rate of stellar disruption,
The merging of two galaxies, as exemplified by the collision of our own Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy, which is expected to occur in 4.5 billion years (a computer simulation):
Even more destruction
It turned out that the effect of the removal of stars from the center of the galaxy by means of the gravitational slingshot was negligible in all cases except for the spherical-galaxy-in-a-vacuum scenario. It should be noted, however, that the shape of a galaxy formed in a merger is never a perfect sphere. As far as the results of calculations are concerned, the bottom line is that an average of one star per 10,000 years per galaxy should be disrupted. And while this number is in good agreement with prior theoretical predictions, it also begs the question: Why is it the case that fewer TDEs are observed than theoretical models would have us expect?
Disruption of a star by the tidal forces of a nearby black hole. Image courtesy of NASA/CXC/M.Weiss; X-ray: NASA/CXC/MPE/S.Komossa et al.; Optical: ESO/MPE/S.Komossa
Kirill Lezhnin, one of the authors of the study and a researcher at MIPT’s Laboratory of Astrophysics and Physics of Nonlinear Processes, explains the significance of the research findings: “We showed that the observed low disruption rates cannot be accounted for by the slingshot effect. Therefore, another mechanism needs to be found which lies outside the realm of stellar dynamics studies. Alternatively, the TDE rates we arrived at could in fact be accurate. We then need to find an explanation as to why they are not observed.”
Contacts and sources:
Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology