Black holes are the most massive objects that we know of in the Universe. Not stellar mass black holes, not supermassive black holes (SMBHs,) but ultra-massive black holes (UMBHs.) UMBHs sit in the center of galaxies like SMBHs, but they have more than five billion solar masses, an astonishingly large amount of mass. The largest black hole we know of is Phoenix A, a UMBH with up to 100 billion solar masses.
Ever since astronomers first detected ultra high energy neutrinos coming from random directions in space, they have not been able to figure out what generates them. But a new hypothesis suggests an unlikely source: the mergers of black holes.
In a recent study, an international team of researchers led by Cardiff University observed a binary black hole system originally detected in 2020 by the Advanced LIGO, Virgo, and Kamioki Gravitational Wave Observatory (KAGRA). In the process, the team noticed a peculiar twisting motion (aka. a precession) in the orbits of the two colliding black holes that was 10 billion times faster than what was noted with other precessing objects. This is the first time a precession has been observed with binary black holes, which confirms yet another phenomenon predicted by General Relativity (GR).
Until recently, one of the closest orbiting each other pairs of supermassive blackholes was found in NGC 7727. That pair is about 89 million light-years away from Earth. Those black holes are only 1,600 light-years apart from each other. Another pair in OJ 287, about 3.5 billion light-years from Earth, are only separated by about 0.3 light years. Now scientists have discovered a pair orbiting each other at a distance of 200 AU to 2,000 AU apart, about 0.003 to 0.03 light years.
The Theory of Relativity predicted the existence of black holes and neutron stars. Einstein gets the credit for the theory because of his paper published in 1915, even though other scientists’ work helped it along. But regardless of the minds behind it, the theory predicted black holes, neutron stars, and the gravitational waves from their mergers.
It took about one hundred years, but scientists finally observed these mergers and their gravitational waves in 2015. Since then, the LIGO/Virgo collaboration has detected many of them. The collaboration has released a new catalogue of discoveries, along with a new infographic. The new infographic displays the black holes, neutron stars, mergers, and the other uncertain compact objects behind some of them.
Black holes have been the subject of intense interest ever since scientists began speculating about their existence. Originally proposed in the early 20th century as a consequence of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, black holes became a mainstream subject a few decades later. By 1971, the first physical evidence of black holes was found and by 2016, the existence of gravitational waves was confirmed for the first time.
This discovery touched off a new era in astrophysics, letting people know collision between massive objects (black holes and/or neutron stars) creates ripples in spacetime that can be detected light-years away. To give people a sense of how profound these events are, Álvaro Díez created the Black Hole Collision Calculator (BHCC) – a tool that lets you see what the outcome of a collision between a black hole and any astronomical object would be!
On the 12th of April, 2019, the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave observatories detected the merger of two black holes. Named GW190412, one of the black holes was eight solar masses, while the other was 30 solar masses. On the 14th of August that year, an even more extreme merger was observed, when a 2.5 solar mass object merged with a black hole nearly ten times more massive. These mergers raise fundamental questions about the way black hole mergers happen.
Black hole merger events are some of the most energetic, fearsomely energetic events in all the cosmos. When black holes merge, they’re entirely invisible, the only evidence of the cataclysm some faint whisper of gravitational waves. Until now.
One of the most pressing questions in astronomy concerns black holes. We know that massive stars that explode as supernovae can leave stellar mass black holes as remnants. And astrophysicists understand that process. But what about the supermassive black holes (SMBHs) like Sagittarius A-star (Sgr A*,) at the heart of the Milky Way?
SMBHs can have a billion solar masses. How do they get so big?