Astronomers Have Found a Way to Spot Supermassive Black Hole Mergers

Wednesday, 24 October 2018 - 1:59PM
Astronomy
Astrophysics
Black Holes
Wednesday, 24 October 2018 - 1:59PM
Astronomers Have Found a Way to Spot Supermassive Black Hole Mergers
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Composite adapted from NASA Goddard
We've said this before, but we'll say it again: black holes are weird. Stephen Hawking once thought they were gateways to another universe, but later claimed that they were ultimate cosmic dead ends. Years after that, he gave up and admitted that even he didn't fully understand how they worked. His last paper, published after his death, was spent trying to understand whether anything can escape a black hole. But putting aside the inner machinations of black holes, astronomers have been struggling with a different problem: how to spot the mergers between two supermassive black holes.

Like a binary star system, black holes can sometimes fall into each other's orbits. This can occur when two galaxies (each of which possesses a supermassive black hole at its center) collide with one another. Scientists have picked up on gravitational waves from the mergers of smaller black holes, but they can't use the same techniques to pick up on supermassive black holes. Instead, the recent study looked for jets of ionized matter, which are produced by black holes. The researchers not only found that the method was effective at spotting merges between large black holes, but that there were a lot of these mergers going on.

Because supermassive black holes are often associated with galaxies, the researchers realized that their jets may have a significant impact on star production: stars usually form from cool gases, but the jets from black holes can heat this gas up and keeps it from becoming suitable material for a star. If two supermassive black holes orbit one another, their jets periodically change direction, potentially heating a lot of gas and regulating the formation of stars within the galaxy.

Binary systems aren't even the craziest cosmic phenomenon you can achieve with black holes—according to a recent study, one galaxy may be host to a ring of them.
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