Astronomers just spotted two supermassive black holes on a collision course

The SMBH in this Subaru Telescope image is 13.05 billion light years from Earth. These ancient SMBHs have challenged our understanding of how black holes form. Image Credit National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

Astronomers just spotted two supermassive black holes on a collision course

The gravitational waves the newly-discovered black holes generate prior to colliding with each other already dwarf those previously detected from the collision of small black holes and neutron stars. With an inconceivable amount of matter packed into nearly infinitely small space, black holes boast such unimaginably powerful gravitational fields nothing, even light, can escape.

In the present-day universe, the black holes are already emitting these gravitational waves, but even at light speed the waves will reach Earth for billions of years.

Artist's impression of gravitational waves caused by two merging black holes. "For everyone in black hole physics, observationally this is a long-standing puzzle that we need to solve", said Jenny Greene, the study's co-author in a recent statement, Phys.org reports.

The black holes, each of which has a mass more than 800,000,000 times that of our own Sun, could either merge together or or freeze a short distance from each other in a freaky phenomenon that astronomers call "the final parsec problem".

There's really nothing in the universe that can compare to the awesome power of a supermassive black hole. The galaxy containing the black holes, SDSS J1010+1413, drew the attention of observational astronomers because it is remarkably bright.

Supermassive black holes are usually found at the center of galaxies, including our own, and during a galaxy merger they end up beginning a dance of death, spinning around each other in a near-endless waltz, until finally merging.

The final parsec problem revolves around the idea that as the distance between the two objects decreases, the actual space between them shrinks too, slowing their orbits so much that the time for them for cover the final parsec (just over three light years) between them becomes effectively infinite.

The pair of colliding black holes is now observed to be 430 parsecs apart.

The researchers said that the two black holes are particularly interesting because they are about 2.5 billion light-years away.

But that's where this discovery and gravitational waves come into things. Because they are 2.5 billion light years from Earth, that was their position 2.5 billion years ago, when the Earth was half its current age.

If astronomers can detect that constant hum of rippling in space-time, that would suggest the existence of the gravitational wave background - and rule out the final parsec problem. Gravitational waves from supermassive black hole binaries are up to a million times louder than those previously detected by LIGO. However, the same is true for the reverse scenario.

This is coincidently the same amount of time astronomers estimate the black holes will take to begin producing powerful gravitational waves.

For now, as is often the case, we continue to point our eyes to the cosmos and hunt.

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