Swift J1644+57 gone MAD: The case for dynamically important magnetic flux threading the black hole in a jetted tidal disruption event

Alexander Tchekhovskoy*, Brian D. Metzger, Dimitrios Giannios, Luke Z. Kelley

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

140 Scopus citations


The unusual transient Swift J1644+57 likely resulted from a collimated relativistic jet, powered by the sudden onset of accretion on to a massive black hole (BH) following the tidal disruption (TD) of a star. However, several mysteries cloud the interpretation of this event, including (1) the extreme flaring and 'plateau' shape of the X-ray/γ -ray light curve during the first t - ttrig ~ 10 d after the γ -ray trigger; (2) unexpected rebrightening of the forward shock radio emission at t - ttrig ~ months; (3) lack of obvious evidence for jet precession, despite the misalignment typically expected between the angular momentum of the accretion disc and BH; (4) recent abrupt shut-off in the jet X-ray emission at t - ttrig ~ 1.5 yr. Here, we show that all of these seemingly disparate mysteries are naturally resolved by one assumption: the presence of strong magnetic flux φ• threading the BH. Just after the TD event, φ• is dynamically weak relative to the high rate of fall-back accretion γM , such that the accretion disc (jet) freely precesses about the BH axis = our line of sight. As γM decreases, however, φ• becomes dynamically important, leading to a state of 'magnetically arrested disk' (MAD). MAD naturally aligns the jet with the BH spin, but only after an extended phase of violent rearrangement (jet wobbling), which in Swift J1644+57 starts a few days before the γ -ray trigger and explains the erratic early light curve. Indeed, the entire X-ray light curve can be fitted to the predicted power-law decay γM α t -a (α = 5/3 - 2.2) if the TD occurred a few weeks prior to the γ -ray trigger. Jet energy directed away from the line of sight, either prior to the trigger or during the jet alignment process, eventually manifests as the observed radio rebrightening, similar to an off-axis (orphan) γ -ray burst afterglow. As suggested recently, the late X-ray shut-off occurs when the disc transitions to a geometrically thin (jetless) state once γM drops below ~the Eddington rate. We predict that, in several years, a transition to a low/hard state will mark a revival of the jet and its associated X-ray emission. We use our model for Swift J1644+57 to constrain the properties of the BH and disrupted star, finding that a solar mass main-sequence star disrupted by a relatively low-mass M• ~ 105-106M BH is consistent with the data, while a white dwarf disruption (though still possible) is disfavoured. The magnetic flux required to power Swift J1644+57 is much too large to be supplied by the star itself, but it could be collected from a quiescent 'fossil' accretion disc that was present in the galactic nucleus prior to the TD. The presence (lack of) of such a fossil disc could be a deciding factor in what TD events are accompanied by powerful jets.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2744-2760
Number of pages17
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 2014


  • Accretion, accretion discs - black hole physics -MHD- gamma-rays
  • Galaxies
  • Galaxies - X-rays

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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