In 10,000 years, two massive black holes are on track to merge that will send ripples in space and time across the universe.
According to researchers in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, about 9 billion light-years away, two supermassive black holes are revolving around each other, but this waltz dance will not last always. Eventually according to these researchers, the pair will collide and the effect will be a single deafening abyss forceful enough to rip through space and time.
These black holes are so massive that they are millions of times the mass of our sun, and are currently only separated about the distance between the Earth and Pluto.
A black hole that is half the size of a golf ball is the mass equivalent to planet Earth.
These researchers published a study indicating that the waltzing black holes are the second known candidates of impending supermassive black hole mergers ever discovered.
Tony Readhead, a co-author of the study, began in 2008 watching the sky for galaxies with cores holding active black holes. Readhead and the team searched for voids with central jets that spew streams of matter at incredible velocities about the speed of light, that in turn flood the universe with luminescence.
Normally, energetic galactic centers are called quasars, but Readhead wanted to find a subclass of quasars called blazar. Blazars’ jets are basically pointed directly at the Earth. Readhead had monitored over 1,000 of these beams. But in 2020, something happened. A black hole jet named PKS 2131-021 was noticed because it exhibited a particular repetition of light variation that Readhead calls sinusoidal pattern. These patterns look like waves on a diagram going up then down, almost like hills and valleys.
Readhead then did additional research to see how far back the shape goes. After studying radio telescope data from powerful machines like National Radio Astronomy Very Long Baseline Array, Readhead’s team found patterns that trace back to 1981.
Because there were a ton of gaps in the sine wave’s consistency, “the story would have stopped there, as we didn’t realize there were data on this subject before 1980,” Readhead provided in a statement.
Sandra O’Neil, an undergraduate student at Caltech, however, started researching this project in 2021. And O’Neil discovered the patterns stretched all the way to the 70s and that the pattern maintained a stronger consistency back then too. O’Neil released a statement saying, “when we realized that the peaks and troughs of the light curve detected from recent times matched the peaks and troughs observed between 1975 and 1983, we knew something very special was going on.”
Readhead stated that had it not been for O’Neil, “this beautiful finding would be sitting on the shelf.”
At this time, co-author of the study Roger Blandford, an astrophysicist at Caltech, chimed in. Blandford created a model of the sine wave and he found a pattern that was caused by not one but two black holes, though only one of the holes emanates the jet with a fluctuating sinusoidal light pattern. Blandford helped others to see that the supermassive black holes orbits around each other every two years or five years if you take into account the universe’s expansion rate. Readhead said Blandford helped to figure out “that a binary with relativistic jet would have a light curve that looked like this.”
The finding of PKS 2131-021's binary black hole system aids in the studies of gravitational waves and ripples in the universe created by super strong gravitational forces. These forces were first mentioned by Albert Einstein a century ago, but the existence of gravitational waves was considered unprovable. But the skepticism ended in 2016 when scientists from Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory aka LIGO, shocked everyone when they announced “the detection of such waves for the first time as the result of two black holes colliding.” LIGO proved Einsteins hypothesis or conjecture as some would have called it: “space-time is a fabric that can be rippled by gravity the way dropping a coin in a lake would send ripples across the water.”
LIGO continues to study the warping of space-time, but the researchers in The Astrophysical Journal Letters emphasize its detector can't catch ripples caused by enormous black holes like the two found in PKS 2131-021.
Blandford provided in a statement, "this work shows the value of doing accurate monitoring of these sources over many years for performing discovery science,"
And Readhead jests that these supermassive black holes are like a “good detective novel.”
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