Scientist Find Treasure Trove of Giant Black Hole Pairs

In February 2016, LIGO detected gravity waves for the first time. As this artist's illustration depicts, the gravitational waves were created by merging black holes. The third detection just announced was also created when two black holes merged. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.
Artist's impression of merging binary black holes. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.

For decades, astronomers have known that Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) reside at the center of most massive galaxies. These black holes, which range from being hundreds of thousands to billions of Solar masses, exert a powerful influence on surrounding matter and are believed to be the cause of Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN). For as long as astronomers have known about them, they have sought to understand how SMBHs form and evolve.

In two recently published studies, two international teams of researchers report on the discovery of five newly-discovered black hole pairs at the centers of distant galaxies. This discovery could help astronomers shed new light on how SMBHs form and grow over time, not to mention how black hole mergers produce the strongest gravitational waves in the Universe.

The first four dual black hole candidates were reported in a study titled “Buried AGNs in Advanced Mergers: Mid-Infrared Color Selection as a Dual AGN Finder“, which was led by Shobita Satyapal, a professor of astrophysics at George Mason University. This study was accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal and recently appeared online.

Optical and x-ray data on two of the new black hole pairs discovered. Credit: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Victoria/S.Ellison et al./George Mason Univ./S.Satyapal et al./SDSS

The second study, which reported the fifth dual black hole candidate, was led by Sarah Ellison – an astrophysics professor at the University of Victoria. It was recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society under the title “Discovery of a Dual Active Galactic Nucleus with ~8 kpc Separation. The discovery of these five black hole pairs was very fortuitous, given that pairs are a very rare find.

As Shobita Satyapal explained in a Chandra press statement:

“Astronomers find single supermassive black holes all over the universe. But even though we’ve predicted they grow rapidly when they are interacting, growing dual supermassive black holes have been difficult to find.

The black hole pairs were discovered by combining data from a number of different ground-based and space-based instruments. This included optical data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and the ground-based Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Arizona with near-infrared data from the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and x-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

For the sake of their studies, Satyapal, Ellison, and their respective teams sought to detect dual AGNs, which are believed to be a consequence of galactic mergers. They began by consulting optical data from the SDSS to identify galaxies that appeared to be in the process of merging. Data from the all-sky WISE survey was then used to identify those galaxies that displayed the most powerful AGNs.

Illustration of a pair of black holes. Credit: NASA/CXC/A.Hobart

They then consulted data from the Chandra’s Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS) and the LBT to identify seven galaxies that appeared to be in an advanced stage of merger. The study led by Ellison also relied on optical data provided by the Mapping Nearby Galaxies at Apache Point Observatory (MaNGA) survey to pinpoint one of the new black hole pairs.

From the combined data, they found that five out of the seven merging galaxies hosted possible dual AGNs, which were separated by less than 10 kiloparsecs (over 30,000 light years). This was evidenced by the infrared data provided by WISE, which was consistent with what is predicated of rapidly growing supermassive black holes.

In addition, the Chandra data showed closely-separated pairs of x-ray sources, which is also consistent with black holes that have matter slowly being accreted onto them. This infrared and x-ray data also suggested that the supermassive black holes are buried in large amounts of dust and gas. As Ellison indicated, these findings were the result of painstaking work that consisted of sorting through multiple wavelengths of data:

“Our work shows that combining the infrared selection with X-ray follow-up is a very effective way to find these black hole pairs. X-rays and infrared radiation are able to penetrate the obscuring clouds of gas and dust surrounding these black hole pairs, and Chandra’s sharp vision is needed to separate them”.

Artist’s impression of binary black hole system in the process of merging. Credit: Bohn et al.

Before this study, less than ten pairs of growing black holes had been confirmed based on X-ray studies, and these were mostly by chance. This latest work, which detected five black hole pairs using combined data, was therefore both fortunate and significant. Aside from bolstering the hypothesis that supermassive black holes form from the merger of smaller black holes, these studies also have serious implications for gravitational wave research.

“It is important to understand how common supermassive black hole pairs are, to help in predicting the signals for gravitational wave observatories,” said Satyapa. “With experiments already in place and future ones coming online, this is an exciting time to be researching merging black holes. We are in the early stages of a new era in exploring the universe.”

Since 2016, a total of four instances of gravitational waves have been detected by instruments like the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the VIRGO Observatory. However, these detections were the result of black hole mergers where the black holes were all smaller and less massive  – between eight and 36 Solar masses.

Supermassive Black Holes, on the other hand, are much more massive and will likely produce a much larger gravitational wave signature as they continue to draw closer together. And in a few hundred million years, when these pairs eventually do merge, the resulting energy produced by mass being converted into gravitational waves will be incredible.

Artist’s conception of two merging black holes, similar to those detected by LIGO on January 4th, 2017. Credit: LIGO/Caltech

At present, detectors like LIGO and Virgo are not able to detect the gravitational waves created by Supermassive Black Hole pairs. This work is being done by arrays like the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), which relies on high-precision millisecond pulsars to measure the influence of gravitational waves on space-time.

The proposed Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), which will be the first dedicated space-based gravitational wave detector, is also expected to help in the search. In the meantime, gravitational wave research has already benefited immensely from collaborative efforts like the one that exists between Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo.

In the future, scientists also anticipate that they will be able to study the interiors of supernovae through gravitational wave research. This is likely to reveal a great deal about the mechanisms behind black hole formation. Between all of these ongoing efforts and future developments, we can expect to “hear” a great deal more of the Universe and the most powerful forces at work within it.

Be sure to check out this animation that shows what the eventual merger of two of these black hole pairs will look like, courtesy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory:

Further Reading: Chandra HarvardarXiv, MNRAS

Cosmic Census Says There Could be 100 Million Black Holes in our Galaxy Alone

Artist's conception shows two merging black holes similar to those detected by LIGO on January 4th, 2017. Credit: LIGO/Caltech

In January of 2016, researchers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) made history when they announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves. Supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and operated by Caltech and MIT, LIGO is dedicated to studying the waves predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and caused by black hole mergers.

According to a new study by a team of astronomers from the Center of Cosmology at the University of California Irvine, such mergers are far more common than we thought. After conducting a survey of the cosmos intended to calculate and categorize black holes, the UCI team determined that there could be as many as 100 million black holes in the galaxy, a finding which has significant implications for the study of gravitational waves.

The study which details their findings, titled “Counting Black Holes: The Cosmic Stellar Remnant Population and Implications for LIGO“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Led by Oliver D. Elbert, a postdoc student with the department of Physics and Astronomy at UC Irvine, the team conducted an analysis of gravitational wave signals that have been detected by LIGO.

LIGO’s two facilities, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. Credit: ligo.caltech.edu

Their study began roughly a year and a half ago, shortly after LIGO announced the first detection of gravitational waves. These waves were created by the merger of two distant black holes, each of which was equivalent in mass to about 30 Suns. As James Bullock, a professor of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine and a co-author on the paper, explained in a UCI press release:

“Fundamentally, the detection of gravitational waves was a huge deal, as it was a confirmation of a key prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. But then we looked closer at the astrophysics of the actual result, a merger of two 30-solar-mass black holes. That was simply astounding and had us asking, ‘How common are black holes of this size, and how often do they merge?’”

Traditionally, astronomers have been of the opinion that black holes would typically be about the same mass as our Sun. As such, they sought to interpret the multiple gravitational wave detections made by LIGO in terms of what is known about galaxy formation. Beyond this, they also sought to create a framework for predicting future black hole mergers.

From this, they concluded that the Milky Way Galaxy would be home to up to 100 million black holes, 10 millions of which would have an estimated mass of about 30 Solar masses – i.e. similar to those that merged and created the first gravitational waves detected by LIGO in 2016. Meanwhile, dwarf galaxies – like the Draco Dwarf, which orbits at a distance of about 250,000 ly from the center of our galaxy – would host about 100 black holes.

They further determined that today, most low-mass black holes (~10 Solar masses) reside within galaxies of 1 trillion Solar masses (massive galaxies) while massive black holes (~50 Solar masses) reside within galaxies that have about 10 billion Solar masses (i.e. dwarf galaxies). After considering the relationship between galaxy mass and stellar metallicity, they interpreted a galaxy’s black hole count as a function of its stellar mass.

In addition, they also sought to determine how often black holes occur in pairs, how often they merge and how long this would take. Their analysis indicated that only a tiny fraction of black holes would need to be involved in mergers to accommodate what LIGO observed. It also offered predictions that showed how even larger black holes could be merging within the next decade.

As Manoj Kaplinghat, also a UCI professor of physics and astronomy and the second co-author on the study, explained:

“We show that only 0.1 to 1 percent of the black holes formed have to merge to explain what LIGO saw. Of course, the black holes have to get close enough to merge in a reasonable time, which is an open problem… If the current ideas about stellar evolution are right, then our calculations indicate that mergers of even 50-solar-mass black holes will be detected in a few years.”

In other words, our galaxy could be teeming with black holes, and mergers could be happening in a regular basis (relative to cosmological timescales). As such, we can expect that many more gravity wave detections will be possible in the coming years. This should come as no surprise, seeing as how LIGO has made two additional detections since the winter of 2016.

With many more expected to come, astronomers will have many opportunities to study black holes mergers, not to mention the physics that drive them!

Further Reading: UCI, MNRAS