Optical flares from the tidal disruption of stars by massive black holes

Linda E. Strubbe, Eliot Quataert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

378 Scopus citations


A star that wanders too close to a massive black hole (BH) is shredded by the BH's tidal gravity. Stellar gas falls back to the BH at a rate initially exceeding the Eddington rate, releasing a flare of energy. In anticipation of upcoming transient surveys, we predict the light curves and spectra of tidal flares as a function of time, highlighting the unique signatures of tidal flares at optical and near-infrared wavelengths. A reasonable fraction of the gas initially bound to the BH is likely blown away when the fallback rate is super-Eddington at early times. This outflow produces an optical luminosity comparable to that of a supernova; such events have durations of ∼10 d and may have been missed in supernova searches that exclude the nuclear regions of galaxies. When the fallback rate subsides below Eddington, the gas accretes onto the BH via a thin disc whose emission peaks in the ultraviolet to soft X-rays. Some of this emission is reprocessed by the unbound stellar debris, producing a spectrum of very broad emission lines (with no corresponding narrow forbidden lines). These lines are the strongest for BHs with MBH ∼ 10 5-106 M and thus optical surveys are particularly sensitive to the lowest mass BHs in galactic nuclei. Calibrating our models to ROSAT and Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) observations, we predict detection rates for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS), the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and highlight some of the observational challenges associated with studying tidal disruption events in the optical. Upcoming surveys such as Pan-STARRS should detect at least several events per year, and may detect many more if current models of outflows during super-Eddington accretion are reasonably accurate. These surveys will significantly improve our knowledge of stellar dynamics in galactic nuclei, the physics of super-Eddington accretion, the demography of intermediate mass BHs and the role of tidal disruption in the growth of massive BHs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2070-2084
Number of pages15
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2009
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Black hole physics
  • Galaxies: nuclei


Dive into the research topics of 'Optical flares from the tidal disruption of stars by massive black holes'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this