Optical Discovery of probable stellar tidal disruption flares

Sjoert Van Velzen, Glennys R. Farrar, Suvi Gezari, Nidia Morrell, Dennis Zaritsky, Linda Östman, Mathew Smith, Joseph Gelfand, Andrew J. Drake

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

190 Scopus citations

Abstract

Using archival Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) multi-epoch imaging data (Stripe 82), we have searched for the tidal disruption of stars by supermassive black holes in non-active galaxies. Two candidate tidal disruption events (TDEs) are identified. The TDE flares have optical blackbody temperatures of 2 × 104 K and observed peak luminosities of Mg = -18.3 and -20.4 (νL ν = 5 × 1042, 4 × 10 43 erg s-1, in the rest frame); their cooling rates are very low, qualitatively consistent with expectations for tidal disruption flares. The properties of the TDE candidates are examined using (1) SDSS imaging to compare them to other flares observed in the search, (2) UV emission measured by GALEX, and (3) spectra of the hosts and of one of the flares. Our pipeline excludes optically identifiable AGN hosts, and our variability monitoring over nine years provides strong evidence that these are not flares in hidden AGNs. The spectra and color evolution of the flares are unlike any SN observed to date, their strong late-time UV emission is particularly distinctive, and they are nuclear at high resolution arguing against these being first cases of a previously unobserved class of SNe or more extreme examples of known SN types. Taken together, the observed properties are difficult to reconcile with an SN or an AGN-flare explanation, although an entirely new process specific to the inner few hundred parsecs of non-active galaxies cannot be excluded. Based on our observed rate, we infer that hundreds or thousands of TDEs will be present in current and next-generation optical synoptic surveys. Using the approach outlined here, a TDE candidate sample with O(1) purity can be selected using geometric resolution and host and flare color alone, demonstrating that a campaign to create a large sample of TDEs, with immediate and detailed multi-wavelength follow-up, is feasible. A by-product of this work is quantification of the power spectrum of extreme flares in AGNs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number73
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Volume741
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Nov 10 2011

Keywords

  • black hole physics
  • galaxies: nuclei

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science

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    Van Velzen, S., Farrar, G. R., Gezari, S., Morrell, N., Zaritsky, D., Östman, L., Smith, M., Gelfand, J., & Drake, A. J. (2011). Optical Discovery of probable stellar tidal disruption flares. Astrophysical Journal, 741(2), [73]. https://doi.org/10.1088/0004-637X/741/2/73