The Persistence of Pancakes and the Revival of Self-gravity in Tidal Disruption Events

Eric R. Coughlin, C. J. Nixon, Patrick R. Miles

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


The destruction of a star by the tides of a supermassive black hole (SMBH) powers a bright accretion flare, and the theoretical modeling of such tidal disruption events (TDEs) can provide a direct means of inferring SMBH properties from observations. Previously it has been shown that TDEs with β = r t/r p = 1, where r t is the tidal disruption radius and r p is the pericenter distance of the star, form an in-plane caustic, or "pancake,"where the tidally disrupted debris is compressed into a one-dimensional line within the orbital plane of the star. Here we show that this result applies generally to all TDEs for which the star is fully disrupted, i.e., that satisfy β ⪆ 1. We show that the location of this caustic is always outside of the tidal disruption radius of the star and the compression of the gas near the caustic is at most mildly supersonic, which results in an adiabatic increase in the gas density above the tidal density of the black hole. As such, this in-plane pancake revitalizes the influence of self-gravity even for large β, in agreement with recent simulations. This finding suggests that for all TDEs in which the star is fully disrupted, self-gravity is revived post-pericenter, keeps the stream of debris narrowly confined in its transverse directions, and renders the debris prone to gravitational instability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberL39
JournalAstrophysical Journal Letters
Issue number2
StatePublished - Sep 10 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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