Astronomers measure the trajectories of orbiting supermassive black holes

"Even though we've theorized that this should be happening, nobody had ever seen it until now," said researcher Greg Taylor.
By Brooks Hays  |  June 27, 2017 at 4:36 PM
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June 27 (UPI) -- In a scientific breakthrough, a team of astronomers at the University of New Mexico have managed to observe and measure the trajectories of two orbiting supermassive black holes inside a pair of galaxies that recently merged.

Researchers detailed their accomplishment -- more than a decade in the making -- this week in the Astrophysical Journal.

"For a long time, we've been looking into space to try and find a pair of these supermassive black holes orbiting as a result of two galaxies merging," UNM professor Greg Taylor said in a news release. "Even though we've theorized that this should be happening, nobody had ever seen it until now."

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory detected gravitational waves for the first time last year. The ripples in space-time were created by the merger of two stellar mass black holes. Thanks to the latest discovery by Taylor and his colleagues, astronomers can gain insight into the nature of supermassive black hole collisions and mergers.

Over several years, researchers were able to identify and trace the trajectories of the two supermassive black holes by observing specific radio frequency signatures emitted by the black holes and picked up by the Long Baseline Array, a powerful radio telescope.

"When Dr. Taylor gave me this data I was at the very beginning of learning how to image and understand it," said graduate student Karishma Bansal. "And, as I learned there was data going back to 2003, we plotted it and determined they are orbiting one another. It's very exciting."

Together, the two supermassive black holes boast a mass of 15 billion solar masses. Their orbital period is about 24,000 years. Over the last decade, astronomers have witnessed only the tiniest fraction of orbital movement.

"If you imagine a snail on the recently-discovered Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri -- 4.243 light years away -- moving at 1 centimeter a second, that's the angular motion we're resolving here," said Roger W. Romani, professor of physics at Stanford University.

Researchers say their continued observations of the orbiting pair will yield insights into not only the black holes themselves, but the stars and galaxies the surround them.

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