NASA's Swift Satellite Spots Black Hole Devouring A Star

Research Description

Time-domain astrophysics is a key frontier of modern research, with far-reaching implications for our understanding of the life and death of stars, the birth of neutron stars and black holes, the production of the chemical elements, the expansion history of the universe, the properties of the first stars and galaxies, and the epoch of cosmic re-ionization. At Harvard, these studies include gamma-ray bursts, core-collapse and thermonuclear supernovae, the tidal disruption of stars by supermassive black holes, and stellar eruptions. These studies draw on on a wide range of resources and surveys from gamma-rays to radio waves, such as Pan-STARRS, Magellan, MMT, the Submillimeter Array, Swift, the EVLA, Chandra, Hubble, and Gemini. A unique strength is the combination of these substantial observational resources with broad theoretical investigations of accretion processes, the birth and evolution of relativistic jets, and early universe studies.

Recent highlights include: (i) The discovery of gamma-ray bursts at redshift of 8-9.5, the most distant objects in the universe; (ii) the formation of relativistic jets and the breakout of shocks in supernovae; (iii) the discovery of the most luminous known supernovae, with an energy scale that requires new exotic explosion mechanisms; (iv) the first detection of the birth of a jet from the tidal destruction of a stray star by a supermassive black hole; (v) first results from century-long monitoring of the sky as part of the DASCH project; and (vi) refined measurement of the equation of state of dark energy using Type Ia supernovae (including the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to two former Harvard graduate students!)