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UNM Astronomers Detect Orbital Motion in Pair of Supermassive Black Holes

Supermassive black holes, with millions or billions of times the mass of the Sun, reside at the cores of most galaxies. The presence of two such monsters at the center of a single galaxy means that the galaxy merged with another some time in the past. In such cases, the two black holes themselves may eventually merge in an event that would produce gravitational waves that ripple across the universe.

“This is the first pair of black holes to be seen as separate objects that are moving with respect to each other, and thus makes this the first black-hole ‘visual binary.'”

Greg Taylor of the University of New Mexico (UNM).
Binary Smbh 1170X600

The two black holes, with a combined mass 15 billion times that of the Sun, are likely separated by only about 24 light-years, extremely close  for such a system

Credit: Josh Valenzuela/University of New Mexico

The galaxy, an elliptical galaxy called 0402+379, after its location in the sky, was first observed in 1995. It was studied in 2003 and 2005 with the VLBA. Based on finding two cores in the galaxy, instead of one, Taylor and his collaborators concluded in 2006 that it contained a pair of supermassive black holes.

The latest research, which Taylor and his colleagues are reporting in the Astrophysical Journal, incorporates new VLBA observations from 2009 and 2015, along with re-analysis of the earlier VLBA data. This work revealed motion of the two cores, confirming that the two black holes are orbiting each other. The scientists’ initial calculations indicate that they complete a single orbit in about 30,000 years.

“We believe that the two supermassive black holes in this galaxy will merge,” said Karishma Bansal, a graduate student at UNM, adding that the merger will come at least millions of years in the future.


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