January 18, 2024 — New simulations by Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers revealed that previously unknown shockwaves within tidal disruption events (TDE) are the origins of intense light in supermassive black holes in space.  

Supermassive black holes, ranging from millions to billions of times the size of the Sun, have remained elusive despite their pivotal role in shaping galaxies. Their extreme gravitational pull warps spacetime, creating an environment that defies conventional understanding and presents a challenge for observational astronomers.  

The study, published in Nature, focused on TDEs, a dramatic phenomenon which occurs when ill-fated stars venture too close to a black hole’s event horizon and are torn apart into thin streams of plasma. As this plasma returns towards the black hole, a series of shockwaves heat it up, leading to an extraordinary display of luminosity—a flare that surpasses the collective brightness of an entire galaxy for weeks or even months. 

The research uncovered a previously unexplored type of shockwave within TDEs, revealing that these events dissipate their energy at a faster rate than previously understood. The study resolves a long-standing theoretical debate, confirming that the brightest phases of a TDE flare are powered by shock dissipation—a revelation that sets the stage for comprehensive exploration by observational astronomers. Moreover, these cosmic occurrences could serve as a litmus test for validating Einstein’s predictions in extreme gravitational environments. 

The study simulations were created using pioneering radiation-hydrodynamics simulation software developed by Dr. Elad Steinberg and Dr. Nicholas C. Stone from the Racah Institute of Physics at the Hebrew University. The team’s work marked the first time a simulation accurately replicated the entire sequence of a TDE from stellar disruption to the peak luminosity of the resulting flare. This achievement represents a significant leap forward in understanding these cosmic events.  

The research paper titled “Stream-Disk Shocks as the Origins of Peak Light in Tidal Disruption Events” is now available in Nature and can be accessed here.