Using photographs obtained from the Hubble Space Telescope, a US collaboration of astronomers have detected two supermassive black holes on a collision course, 2.5 billion light-years from Earth. The two black holes will continue to get closer to one another sending out large ripples in space-time, known as gravitational waves, which will be detected again on Earth. Although we’re not likely to detect their sign for billions of years, they may help astronomers gain a better understanding of those enormous ripples.
The research, published in the research journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters on July 10, describes the two supermassive black holes as having 800 million times more mass than our sun. The galaxy containing the black holes, SDS J1010+1413, drew the eye of observational astronomers because it’s remarkably bright. When the astronomers swung Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, essentially the most advanced instrument on board the space telescope, they observed the supermassive black holes.
Supermassive black holes are found at the center of galaxies, together with our own, and during a galaxy merger, they end up starting a dance of death, spinning around each other in a near-endless waltz, until finally merging. However, researchers are currently unclear as to the time it takes for black holes to merge — or indeed if they merge at all.
“It is a major embarrassment for astronomy that we do not know if supermassive black holes merge,” said Jenny Greene, a professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton and co-creator of the examine. “For everybody in black gap physics, observationally this can be a lengthy-standing puzzle that we have to clear up.”
This puzzle is dubbed the “final-parsec problem.” Some astronomers believe that once two supermassive black holes get shut enough together, decreasing their distance to 1 parsec (3.2 light-years), they may dance for eternity.
But that is where this discovery and gravitational waves come into things. Enlisting the help of gravitational wave physicists, the monster black holes 2.5 billion light-years away help to refine the approximations of how common supermassive black hole pairs like this actually are.