Two supermassive black holes in a ‘death spiral’ are doomed to collide


A galaxy roughly 2.5 billion light-years away has a pair of supermassive black holes which are are lit up in this picture by warm gas and bright stars surrounding them (Photo: A.D. Goulding et al./ Astrophysical Journal Letters 2019)

Astronomers have discovered two supermassive black holes which are doomed to smash into each other.

The dark monsters are locked in a ‘death spiral’ and will crash to produce an almighty bang of gravitational waves which will ‘ripple through space-time’.

‘Supermassive black hole binaries produce the loudest gravitational waves in the universe,’ says co-discoverer Chiara Mingarelli, an associate research scientist at the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Astrophysics in New York City.

The two supermassive black holes are lurking 2.5 billion light-years away from Earth.

Since looking at objects way out in space is like looking back in time – because of how long it takes light to reach us here on Earth – our view of the greedy beasts allows us to peer into the universe’s distant past.

This means the black holes have probably already collided and are gushing out gravity waves which humans will pick up one day in the far, far future – assuming we’re still alive in a few billion years.

Scientists don’t actually know whether supermassive black holes merge when they collide or ‘become stuck in a near-endless waltz around each other’.

A computer simulation of two black holes merging together (Image: Nasa)

‘It’s a major embarrassment for astronomy that we don’t know if supermassive black holes merge,’ said study co-author Jenny Greene, a professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton.

‘For everyone in black hole physics, observationally this is a long-standing puzzle that we need to solve.’

Supermassive holes are as dense of millions or billions of suns and most galaxies including the galaxy have one at their centre.

When galaxies collide, the holes meet up and begin circling each other but appear to stop at roughly 1 parsec apart, which is about 3.2 light years.

This slowdown appears to last indefinitely and ‘only very rare groups of three or more supermassive black holes result in mergers’.

Scientists hope that by studying the latest pair of black holes they can work out if black holes really can overcome the ‘final parsec hurdle’ and come together or are doomed to circle each other forever.





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