The Observable Signature of Black Hole Formation
Author: Anthony L. Piro
Affiliation: Theoretical Astrophysics Including Relativity (TAPIR), California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, USA
Black holes are among the most exciting objects in the Universe. They are regions of spacetime predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity in which gravity is so strong that it prevents anything, even light, from escaping. Black holes are known to exist and roughly come in two varieties. There are massive black holes at the centers of galaxies, which can have masses anywhere from a million to many billion times the mass of our Sun. And there are also black holes of around ten solar masses in galaxies like our own that have been detected via X-ray emission from accretion . Although this latter class of black holes is generally believed to be formed from the collapse of massive stars, there is a lot of uncertainty that is the focus of current ongoing research. It is unknown what fraction of massive stars produce black holes (rather than neutron stars), what the channels for black holes formation are, and what corresponding observational signatures are expected. Through a combination of theory, state-of-the-art simulations, and new observations, astrophysicists are trying to address these very fundamental questions.
A computer-generated image of the light distortions created by a black hole [Image credit:
Alain Riazuelo, IAP/UPMC/CNRAS]
The one instance where astronomers are fairly certain they are seeing black hole formation is in the case of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). A GRB is believed to be the collapse of a massive, quickly rotating star that produces a black hole and relativistic jet. The problem is that these are too rare and are too confined to special environments to explain the majority of black holes. Astronomers regularly see stars exploding as supernovae, but it is not clear what fraction of any of these produce black holes. There is evidence, and it is generally expected, that in most cases these explosions in fact lead to neutron stars instead. This has led to the hypothesis that the signature of black hole formation is in fact the disappearance of a massive star, or "unnova," rather than an actual supernova-like event .
My theoretical work  hypothesizes that there may be an observational signature of black hole formation, even in circumstances where one might normally expect an unnova. Therefore I titled my work "Taking the 'Un' out of 'Unnovae'." The main idea is based on a somewhat forgotten theoretical study by D. Z. Nadezhin . Before a black hole is formed within a collapsing star, a neutron star is formed first. This neutron star emits neutrinos [5,6], which stream out of the star (because neutrinos are very weakly interacting) carrying energy (and thus mass via E=mc2). This can last for a few tenths of a second before enough material falls onto the neutron star to collapse it to a black hole, and carrying away a mass equivalent to a few tenths of the mass of our Sun. From the point of view of the star's envelope, it sees the mass (and therefore gravitational pull) of the core abruptly decrease and the envelope expands in response. This adjustment of the star's envelope grows into a shock wave that heats and ejects the outer envelope of the star.
This process was also looked at in detail by Elizabeth Lovegrove and Stan Woosley at UC Santa Cruz . They were focused on the heating and subsequent cooling of the envelope from this shock. They found that it would lead to something that looked like a very dim supernova that would last for about a year. In my work, I focused on the observational signature when this shock first hits surface of the star. When this happens, the shock's energy is suddenly released in what is called a "shock breakout flash." Although this merely lasts for a few days, it is 10 to 100 times brighter than the subsequent dim supernova. Therefore, this is the best opportunity for astronomers to catch a black hole being created right in the act.
The most exciting part of this result is that now is the perfect time for astronomers to discover these events. Observational efforts such as the Palomar Transient Factory (also known as PTF) and the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (also known as Pan-STARRS) are surveying the sky every night and sometimes finding rare and dim explosive, transient events. These surveys are well-suited to find exactly the kind of event I predict for the shock breakout from black hole formation. Given the rate we expect massive stars to be dying, it is not out of the question that one or more of these will be found in the next year or so, allowing us to actually witness the birth of a black hole.
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