A new class of flares from accreting supermassive black holes

Benny Trakhtenbrot*, Iair Arcavi, Claudio Ricci, Sandro Tacchella, Daniel Stern, Hagai Netzer, Peter G. Jonker, Assaf Horesh, Julián Esteban Mejía-Restrepo, Griffin Hosseinzadeh, Valentina Hallefors, D. Andrew Howell, Curtis McCully, Mislav Baloković, Marianne Heida, Nikita Kamraj, George Benjamin Lansbury, Łukasz Wyrzykowski, Mariusz Gromadzki, Aleksandra HamanowiczS. Bradley Cenko, David J. Sand, Eric Y. Hsiao, Mark M. Phillips, Tiara R. Diamond, Erin Kara, Keith C. Gendreau, Zaven Arzoumanian, Ron Remillard

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalLetterpeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Accreting supermassive black holes (SMBHs) can exhibit variable emission across the electromagnetic spectrum and over a broad range of timescales. The variability of active galactic nuclei (AGNs) in the ultraviolet and optical is usually at the few tens of per cent level over timescales of hours to weeks 1 . Recently, rare, more dramatic changes to the emission from accreting SMBHs have been observed, including tidal disruption events 2–5 , ‘changing look’ AGNs 6–9 and other extreme variability objects 10,11 . The physics behind the ‘re-ignition’, enhancement and ‘shut-down’ of accretion onto SMBHs is not entirely understood. Here we present a rapid increase in ultraviolet–optical emission in the centre of a nearby galaxy, marking the onset of sudden increased accretion onto a SMBH. The optical spectrum of this flare, dubbed AT 2017bgt, exhibits a mix of emission features. Some are typical of luminous, unobscured AGNs, but others are likely driven by Bowen fluorescence—robustly linked here with high-velocity gas in the vicinity of the accreting SMBH. The spectral features and increased ultraviolet flux show little evolution over a period of at least 14 months. This disfavours the tidal disruption of a star as their origin, and instead suggests a longer-term event of intensified accretion. Together with two other recently reported events with similar properties, we define a new class of SMBH-related flares. This has important implications for the classification of different types of enhanced accretion onto SMBHs.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)242-250
Number of pages9
JournalNature Astronomy
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
B.T. is a Zwicky Fellow. I.A. is an Einstein Fellow. E.K. is a Hubble Fellow. We thank N. Caplar, J. Guillochon, Z. Haiman, E. Lusso, and K. Schawinski for useful discussions. We thank C. Tadhunter for providing the spectrum of the F01004-2237 transient and his helpful comments. Part of this work was inspired by discussions within International Team #371, ‘Using Tidal Disruption Events to Study Super-Massive Black Holes’, hosted at the International Space Science Institute in Bern, Switzerland. We thank all the participants of the team meeting for their beneficial comments. Support for I.A. was provided by NASA through the Einstein Fellowship Program, grant PF6-170148. C.R. acknowledges support from the CONICYT+PAI Convocatoria Nacional subvencion a instalacion en la academia convocatoria a no 2017 PAI77170080. P.G.J. acknowledges support from European Research Council Consolidator Grant 647208. A. Horesh acknowledges support by the I-Core Program of the Planning and Budgeting Committee and the Israel Science Foundation. G.H., D.A.H. and C.M. acknowledge support from NSF grant AST-1313484. M.B. acknowledges support from the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard University, which is funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. G.L. acknowledges support from a Herchel Smith Research Fellowship of the University of Cambridge. Ł.W., M.G. and A. Hamanowicz acknowledge Polish National Science Centre grant OPUS no 2015/17/B/ ST9/03167 to Ł.W. Research by D.J.S. is supported by NSF grants AST-1412504 and AST-1517649. E.Y.H. acknowledges the support provided by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. AST-1613472 and by the Florida Space Grant Consortium. This work makes use of observations from the Las Cumbres Observatory network. This publication also makes use of data products from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. WISE and NEOWISE are funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This work made use of data from the NuSTAR mission, a project led by the California Institute of Technology, managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. We thank the NuSTAR operations, software and calibration teams for support with the execution and analysis of these observations. This research made use of the NuSTAR Data Analysis Software (NuSTARDAS) jointly developed by the ASI Science Data Center (ASDC, Italy) and the California Institute of Technology (USA).

Funding Information:
We thank the Swift, NuSTAR and NICER teams for scheduling and performing the target-of-opportunity observations presented here on short notice. The LRIS spectrum presented herein was obtained at the W. M. Keck Observatory, which is operated as a scientific partnership among the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The observatory was made possible by the generous financial support of the W. M. Keck Foundation. We recognize and acknowledge the very significant cultural role and reverence that the summit of Mauna Kea has always had within the indigenous Hawaiian community. We are most fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct observations from this mountain. These results made use of the Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT) at Lowell Observatory. Lowell is a private, non-profit institution dedicated to astrophysical research and public appreciation of astronomy and operates the DCT in partnership with Boston University, the University of Maryland, the University of Toledo, Northern Arizona University and Yale University. The upgrade of the DeVeny optical spectrograph has been funded by a generous grant from John and Ginger Giovale. The FLAMINGOS-2 spectrum was obtained at the Gemini Observatory under program GS-2017A-Q-33 (PI: Sand), which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation on behalf of the Gemini partnership: the National Science Foundation (USA), the National Research Council (Canada), CONICYT (Chile), Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación Productiva (Argentina) and Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação (Brazil).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited.


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