On the Diversity of Fallback Rates from Tidal Disruption Events with Accurate Stellar Structure

E. C.A. Golightly, C. J. Nixon, E. R. Coughlin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


The tidal disruption of stars by supermassive black holes (SMBHs) can be used to probe the SMBH mass function, the properties of individual stars, and stellar dynamics in galactic nuclei. Upcoming missions will detect thousands of tidal disruption events (TDEs), and accurate theoretical modeling is required to interpret the data with precision. Here we analyze the influence of more realistic stellar structure on the outcome of TDEs; in particular, we compare the fallback rates - being the rate at which tidally disrupted debris returns to the black hole - from progenitors generated with the stellar evolution code mesa to and γ = 5/3 polytropes. We find that mesa-generated density profiles yield qualitatively different fallback rates as compared to polytropic approximations, and that only the fallback curves from low-mass (1 M o or less), zero-age main-sequence stars are well fit by either a or 5/3 polytrope. Stellar age has a strong affect on the shape of the fallback curve, and can produce characteristic timescales (e.g., the time to the peak of the fallback rate) that greatly differ from the polytropic values. We use these differences to assess the degree to which the inferred black hole mass from the observed light curve can deviate from the true value, and find that the discrepancy can be at the order of magnitude level. Accurate stellar structure also leads to a substantial variation in the critical impact parameter at which the star is fully disrupted, and can increase the susceptibility of the debris stream to fragmentation under its own self-gravity. These results suggest that detailed modeling is required to accurately interpret observed light curves of TDEs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberL26
JournalAstrophysical Journal Letters
Issue number2
StatePublished - Sep 10 2019
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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