Science

Research reveals two black holes moving in relation to each other

Research reveals two black holes moving in relation to each other

Scientists at the University of New Mexico (UNM) have for the first time confirmed the incredible discovery of two supermassive black holes orbiting each other.

"If you imagine a snail on the recently discovered Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri - a bit over four light years away - moving at one centimeter a second, that's the angular motion we're resolving here", said Roger W. Romani, professor of physics at Stanford and co-author of the paper. The two black holes are at a distance of 217 trillion kilometres. The very big size of these black holes means that their orbital period is about 24,000 years old and even if the team has observed them for more than a decade, they have not yet seen any curvature in their orbit.

The finding could also help scientists understand where galaxies come from and where they are going - including our own. Long ago, 0402+379 may have gotten its bloated shape and double-black-hole-center from merging galaxies, and it could teach scientists a lot about the lifespan of galaxies - especially since the same fate awaits the Milky Way, with the Andromeda galaxy speeding towards us right now. The two supermassive black holes orbiting around one another were estimated to have, together, a mass some 15 billion times that of the Sun.

According to the research paper, this cosmic dance is taking place in a galaxy called 0402+379.

The observations were made using the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), a series of 10 radio telescopes across the country, designed and built by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). These are among the largest black holes ever found, with a combined mass 15 billion times that of the sun.




This means that even though the team has been observing these black holes for over a decade, they haven't been able to detect even the slightest curvature in their orbit.

A false color map showing the two supermassive black holes at the center.

Ever since Einstein's theory of general relativity, astronomers have been fascinated by supermassive black holes.

"What we've been able to do is a true technical achievement over this 12-year period using the VLBA to achieve sufficient resolution and precision in the astrometry to actually see the orbit happening", said Taylor.

"The black holes are at a separation of about seven parsecs, which is the closest together that two supermassive black holes have ever been seen before", Karishma Bansal, a graduate student in Taylor's lab and lead author of the paper, was quoted as explaining in a news release. By studying what makes this stalled pair unique, the scientists said they may be able to better understand the conditions under which black holes normally merge. Meanwhile, Bob Zavala, the astronomer from the U.S. Naval Observatory, said that the orbits of the binary stars could provide great insights into stars. "It's very exciting." She also said that there will be several more years before the research team can collect enough data to draw conclusions. The event that the researchers are studying may occur in our galaxy in a few billion years. Meanwhile, the team hopes that this discovery will encourage further work by astronomers from around the world.


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