In a fascinating revelation, a team of astrophysicists has discovered that radio waves can burst from material surrounding supermassive black holes hundreds of days after they tear apart a star. This unexpected finding challenges previous assumptions that radio waves from these collisions subside within a few weeks or months. With this new insight, scientists speculate that a significant number of black holes indulge in cosmic indigestion, burping out material years after a stellar feast. The reasons behind this phenomenon remain puzzling and require further investigation.

Unraveling the Enigma

The study conducted by the international team of astrophysicists relied on data collected from three radio telescopes: the Very Large Array in the United States, MeerKAT in South Africa, and the Australian Telescope Compact Array. By observing 24 black holes over an extended period, the researchers discovered that ten of these celestial behemoths emitted radio waves approximately 500 to 2,000 days after their initial tidal disruption event.

Previously undocumented, these findings still await peer review but are accessible to the public on the pre-print server The unexpected occurrence of late-onset radio waves challenges convention and raises questions about the underlying factors contributing to this peculiar behavior.

When a star strays too close to a black hole, its overpowering gravitational force elongates the star into a spaghetti-like shape, resulting in a process known as a tidal disruption event. In this celestial catastrophe, the star is torn apart, generating one of the most luminous optical flares witnessed in the Universe. To date, only approximately 100 of these tidal disruption events have been observed since the first recorded occurrence in the 1990s.

It is estimated that around 20 to 30 percent of these events produce an outflow of radio waves in their early stages. However, once this initial burst of brightness subsides, researchers typically move on to other astronomical endeavors, as radio telescope time is precious. After all, why invest resources in studying the aftermath of an explosion that occurred years ago?

Last year, a groundbreaking discovery challenged this conventional thinking. Yvette Cendes and her team stumbled upon a black hole that emitted jets of radio waves approximately three years after devouring a star. This unexpected finding, which earned the black hole the nickname ‘Jetty McJetface,’ prompted Cendes and her team to delve further into the behavior of other tidal disruption events.

Contrary to popular belief, black holes do not greedily suck stars into their depths like a cosmic vacuum cleaner. Instead, they consume stars more like the iconic Cookie Monster devours cookies—with great mess and abandon. In reality, only a small portion of the stellar material colliding with a black hole crosses its event horizon, beyond which even light cannot escape.

Approximately half of the stellar debris gets expelled outward into the galaxy, while the remaining half joins the swirling wreckage orbiting the black hole, forming an accretion disk. Exploring the radio wave emissions years after a collision, the research team postulates two plausible explanations for this delayed phenomenon.

Theories Behind Late-Onset Radio Waves

One possibility is that it takes considerable time for the debris encircling the black hole to settle into a stable orbit. Alternatively, the ejected material could be weakly bound to the supermassive black hole, forming an enveloping sphere that undergoes cooling and radical contraction, eventually transforming into an accretion disk.

According to the authors, if accretion onto the supermassive black hole supplies energy to the enveloping sphere, the full contraction of this envelope could be delayed for up to approximately 700 days, aligning with the time scales measured in their observations. This delay may explain the onset of radio-generating outflows from supermassive black holes, shedding light on a new understanding of disk formation.

The recent discovery of radio waves emanating from material surrounding supermassive black holes long after the destruction of a star challenges our assumptions and deepens the mystery of these colossal entities. The observation of late-onset radio waves in some black holes indicates that up to half of these enigmatic cosmic inhabitants may experience bouts of cosmic indigestion.

While the reasons for this behavior remain unclear, the findings serve as a reminder that the Universe is boundless, constantly surprising us with its hidden wonders. The investigation into the secrets of supermassive black holes continues, offering a glimpse into the extraordinary realm of celestial phenomena and pushing our understanding of the cosmos to new frontiers.


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