What Happens When Supermassive Black Holes Merge?

Frame from a simulation of the merger of two black holes and the resulting emission of gravitational radiation (NASA/C. Henze)

The short answer? You get one super-SUPERmassive black hole. The longer answer?

Well, watch the video below for an idea.

This animation, created with supercomputers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, show for the first time what happens to the magnetized gas clouds that surround supermassive black holes when two of them collide.

The simulation shows the magnetic fields intensifying as they contort and twist turbulently, at one point forming a towering vortex that extends high above the center of the accretion disk.

This funnel-like structure may be partly responsible for the jets that are sometimes seen erupting from actively feeding supermassive black holes.

The simulation was created to study what sort of “flash” might be made by the merging of such incredibly massive objects, so that astronomers hunting for evidence of gravitational waves — a phenomenon first proposed by Einstein in 1916 — will be able to better identify their potential source.

Read: Effects of Einstein’s Elusive Gravity Waves Observed

Gravitational waves are often described as “ripples” in the fabric of space-time, infinitesimal perturbations created by supermassive, rapidly rotating objects like orbiting black holes. Detecting them directly has proven to be a challenge but researchers expect that the technology will be available within several years’ time, and knowing how to spot colliding black holes will be the first step in identifying any gravitational waves that result from the impact.

In fact, it’s the gravitational waves that rob energy from the black holes’ orbits, causing them to spiral into each other in the first place.

“The black holes orbit each other and lose orbital energy by emitting strong gravitational waves, and this causes their orbits to shrink. The black holes spiral toward each other and eventually merge,” said astrophysicist John Baker, a research team member from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We need gravitational waves to confirm that a black hole merger has occurred, but if we can understand the electromagnetic signatures from mergers well enough, perhaps we can search for candidate events even before we have a space-based gravitational wave observatory.”

The video below shows the expanding gravitational wave structure that would be expected to result from such a merger:

If ground-based telescopes can pinpoint the radio and x-ray flash created by the mergers, future space telescopes — like ESA’s eLISA/NGO — can then be used to try and detect the waves.

Read more on the NASA Goddard new release here.

First animation credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/P. Cowperthwaite, Univ. of Maryland. Second animation: NASA/C. Henze.


Effects of Einstein’s Elusive Gravitational Waves Observed

Chandra data (above, graph) on J0806 show that its X-rays vary with a period of 321.5 seconds, or slightly more than five minutes. This implies that the X-ray source is a binary star system where two white dwarf stars are orbiting each other (above, illustration) only 50,000 miles apart, making it one of the smallest known binary orbits in the Galaxy. According to Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, such a system should produce gravitational waves - ripples in space-time - that carry energy away from the system and cause the stars to move closer together. X-ray and optical observations indicate that the orbital period of this system is decreasing by 1.2 milliseconds every year, which means that the stars are moving closer at a rate of 2 feet per year.

Two white dwarfs similar to those in the system SDSS J065133.338+284423.37 spiral together in this illustration from NASA. Credit: D. Berry/NASA GSFC

Locked in a spiraling orbital embrace, the super-dense remains of two dead stars are giving astronomers the evidence needed to confirm one of Einstein’s predictions about the Universe.

A binary system located about 3,000 light-years away, SDSS J065133.338+284423.37 (J0651 for short) contains two white dwarfs orbiting each other rapidly — once every 12.75 minutes. The system was discovered in April 2011, and since then astronomers have had their eyes — and four separate telescopes in locations around the world — on it to see if gravitational effects first predicted by Einstein could be seen.

According to Einstein, space-time is a structure in itself, in which all cosmic objects — planets, stars, galaxies — reside. Every object with mass puts a “dent” in this structure in all dimensions; the more massive an object, the “deeper” the dent. Light energy travels in a straight line, but when it encounters these dents it can dip in and veer off-course, an effect we see from Earth as gravitational lensing.

Einstein also predicted that exceptionally massive, rapidly rotating objects — such as a white dwarf binary pair — would create outwardly-expanding ripples in space-time that would ultimately “steal” kinetic energy from the objects themselves. These gravitational waves would be very subtle, yet in theory, observable.

Read: Astronomy Without a Telescope: Gravitational Waves

What researchers led by a team at The University of Texas at Austin have found is optical evidence of gravitational waves slowing down the stars in J0651. Originally observed in 2011 eclipsing each other (as seen from Earth) once every six minutes, the stars now eclipse six seconds sooner. This equates to a predicted orbital period reduction of about 0.25 milliseconds each year.*

“These compact stars are orbiting each other so closely that we have been able to observe the usually negligible influence of gravitational waves using a relatively simple camera on a 75-year-old telescope in just 13 months,” said study lead author J.J. Hermes, a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin.

Based on these measurements, by April 2013 the stars will be eclipsing each other 20 seconds sooner than first observed. Eventually they will merge together entirely.

Although this isn’t “direct” observation of gravitational waves, it is evidence inferred by their predicted effects… akin to watching a floating lantern in a dark pond at night moving up and down and deducing that there are waves present.

“It’s exciting to confirm predictions Einstein made nearly a century ago by watching two stars bobbing in the wake caused by their sheer mass,” said Hermes.

As of early last year NASA and ESA had a proposed mission called LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) that would have put a series of 3 detectors into space 5 million km apart, connected by lasers. This arrangement of precision-positioned spacecraft could have detected any passing gravitational waves in the local space-time neighborhood, making direct observation possible. Sadly this mission was canceled due to FY2012 budget cuts for NASA, but ESA is moving ahead with developments for its own gravitational wave mission, called eLISA/NGO — the first “pathfinder” portion of which is slated to launch in 2014.

The study was submitted to Astrophysical Journal Letters on August 24. Read more on the McDonald Observatory news release here.

Inset image: simulation of binary black holes causing gravitational waves – C. Reisswig, L. Rezzolla (AEI); Scientific visualization – M. Koppitz (AEI & Zuse Institute Berlin)

*The difference in the eclipse time is noted as six seconds even though the orbital period decay of the two stars is only .25 milliseconds/year because of a pile-up effect of all the eclipses observed since April 2011. The measurements made by the research team takes into consideration the phase change in the J0651 system, which experiences a piling effect — similar to an out-of-sync watch — that increases relative to time^2 and is therefore a larger and easier number to detect and work with. Once that was measured, the actual orbital period decay could be figured out.

A Star’s Dying Scream May Be a Beacon for Physics

When a star suffered an untimely demise at the hands of a hidden black hole, astronomers detected its doleful, ululating wail — in the key of D-sharp, no less — from 3.9 billion light-years away. The resulting ultraluminous X-ray blast revealed the supermassive black hole’s presence at the center of a distant galaxy in March of 2011, and now that information could be used to study the real-life workings of black holes, general relativity, and a concept first proposed by Einstein in 1915.

Within the centers of many spiral galaxies (including our own) lie the undisputed monsters of the Universe: incredibly dense supermassive black holes, containing the equivalent masses of millions of Suns packed into areas smaller than the diameter of Mercury’s orbit. While some supermassive black holes (SMBHs) surround themselves with enormous orbiting disks of superheated material that will eventually spiral inwards to feed their insatiable appetites — all the while emitting ostentatious amounts of high-energy radiation in the process — others lurk in the darkness, perfectly camouflaged against the blackness of space and lacking such brilliant banquet spreads. If any object should find itself too close to one of these so-called “inactive” stellar corpses, it would be ripped to shreds by the intense tidal forces created by the black hole’s gravity, its material becoming an X-ray-bright accretion disk and particle jet for a brief time.

Such an event occurred in March 2011, when scientists using NASA’s Swift telescope detected a sudden flare of X-rays from a source located nearly 4 billion light-years away in the constellation Draco. The flare, called Swift J1644+57, showed the likely location of a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy, a black hole that had until then remained hidden until a star ventured too close and became an easy meal.

See an animation of the event below:

The resulting particle jet, created by material from the star that got caught up in the black hole’s intense magnetic field lines and was blown out into space in our direction (at 80-90% the speed of light!) is what initially attracted astronomers’ attention. But further research on Swift J1644+57 with other telescopes has revealed new information about the black hole and what happens when a star meets its end.

(Read: The Black Hole that Swallowed a Screaming Star)

In particular, researchers have identified what’s called a quasi-periodic oscillation (QPO) embedded inside the accretion disk of Swift J1644+57. Warbling at 5 mhz, in effect it’s the low-frequency cry of a murdered star. Created by fluctuations in the frequencies of X-ray emissions, such a source near the event horizon of a supermassive black hole can provide clues to what’s happening in that poorly-understood region close to a black hole’s point-of-no-return.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity proposes that space itself around a massive rotating object — like a planet, star, or, in an extreme instance, a supermassive black hole — is dragged along for the ride (the Lense-Thirring effect.) While this is difficult to detect around less massive bodies a rapidly-rotating black hole would create a much more pronounced effect… and with a QPO as a benchmark within the SMBH’s disk the resulting precession of the Lense-Thirring effect could, theoretically, be measured.

If anything, further investigations of Swift J1644+57 could provide insight to the mechanics of general relativity in distant parts of the Universe, as well as billions of years in the past.

See the team’s original paper here, lead authored by R.C. Reis of the University of Michigan.

Thanks to Justin Vasel for his article on Astrobites.

Image: NASA. Video: NASA/GSFC

Podcast: Einstein Was Right

At least once a week we get an email claiming that Einstein was wrong. Well you know what, Einstein was right. In fact, as part of his theories of Special and General Relativity, Einstein made a series of predictions about what experiments should discover. Some explained existing puzzles in science, while others made predictions that were only recently proven true.

Click here to download the episode.

Or subscribe to: astronomycast.com/podcast.xml with your podcatching software.

“Einstein Was Right” on the Astronomy Cast website.

Astronomy Cast Ep. 235: Einstein

Albert Einstein

What can we say about Einstein? Albert Einstein! Lots, actually. In this show we’re going to talk about the most revolutionary physicist… ever. He completely changed our understanding of time, and space, and energy, and gravity. He made predictions about the nature of the Universe that we’re still testing out.

Click here to download the episode.

Or subscribe to: astronomycast.com/podcast.xml with your podcatching software.

“Einstein” on the Astronomy Cast website.

Gravity Probe B Confirms Two of Einstein’s Space-Time Theories


Researchers have confirmed two predictions of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, concluding one of NASA’s longest-running projects. The Gravity Probe B experiment used four ultra-precise gyroscopes housed in an Earth-orbiting satellite to measure two aspects of Einstein’s theory about gravity. The first is the geodetic effect, or the warping of space and time around a gravitational body. The second is frame-dragging, which is the amount a spinning object pulls space and time with it as it rotates.

Gravity Probe-B determined both effects with unprecedented precision by pointing at a single star, IM Pegasi, while in a polar orbit around Earth. If gravity did not affect space and time, GP-B’s gyroscopes would point in the same direction forever while in orbit. But in confirmation of Einstein’s theories, the gyroscopes experienced measurable, minute changes in the direction of their spin, while Earth’s gravity pulled at them.

The project as been in the works for 52 years.

The findings are online in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Artist concept of Gravity Probe B orbiting the Earth to measure space-time, a four-dimensional description of the universe including height, width, length, and time. Image credit: NASA

“Imagine the Earth as if it were immersed in honey,”.said Francis Everitt, Gravity Probe-B principal investigator at Stanford University. “As the planet rotates, the honey around it would swirl, and it’s the same with space and time,” “GP-B confirmed two of the most profound predictions of Einstein’s universe, having far-reaching implications across astrophysics research. Likewise, the decades of technological innovation behind the mission will have a lasting legacy on Earth and in space.”

NASA began development of this project starting in the fall of 1963 with initial funding to develop a relativity gyroscope experiment. Subsequent decades of development led to groundbreaking technologies to control environmental disturbances on spacecraft, such as aerodynamic drag, magnetic fields and thermal variations. The mission’s star tracker and gyroscopes were the most precise ever designed and produced.

GP-B completed its data collection operations and was decommissioned in December 2010.

“The mission results will have a long-term impact on the work of theoretical physicists,” said Bill Danchi, senior astrophysicist and program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Every future challenge to Einstein’s theories of general relativity will have to seek more precise measurements than the remarkable work GP-B accomplished.”

Innovations enabled by GP-B have been used in GPS technologies that allow airplanes to land unaided. Additional GP-B technologies were applied to NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer mission, which accurately determined the universe’s background radiation. That measurement is the underpinning of the big-bang theory, and led to the Nobel Prize for NASA physicist John Mather.

The drag-free satellite concept pioneered by GP-B made a number of Earth-observing satellites possible, including NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment and the European Space Agency’s Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer. These satellites provide the most precise measurements of the shape of the Earth, critical for precise navigation on land and sea, and understanding the relationship between ocean circulation and climate patterns.

GP-B also advanced the frontiers of knowledge and provided a practical training ground for 100 doctoral students and 15 master’s degree candidates at universities across the United States. More than 350 undergraduates and more than four dozen high school students also worked on the project with leading scientists and aerospace engineers from industry and government. One undergraduate student who worked on GP-B became the first female astronaut in space, Sally Ride. Another was Eric Cornell who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001.

“GP-B adds to the knowledge base on relativity in important ways and its positive impact will be felt in the careers of students whose educations were enriched by the project,” said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.

Sources: NASA, Stanford University

This is Getting Boring: General Relativity Passes Yet another Big Test!

Published in 1915, Einstein’s theory of general relativity (GR) passed its first big test just a few years later, when the predicted gravitational deflection of light passing near the Sun was observed during the 1919 solar eclipse.

In 1960, GR passed its first big test in a lab, here on Earth; the Pound-Rebka experiment. And over the nine decades since its publication, GR has passed test after test after test, always with flying colors (check out this review for an excellent summary).

But the tests have always been within the solar system, or otherwise indirect.

Now a team led by Princeton University scientists has tested GR to see if it holds true at cosmic scales. And, after two years of analyzing astronomical data, the scientists have concluded that Einstein’s theory works as well in vast distances as in more local regions of space.

A partial map of the distribution of galaxies in the SDSS, going out to a distance of 7 billion light years. The amount of galaxy clustering that we observe today is a signature of how gravity acted over cosmic time, and allows as to test whether general relativity holds over these scales. (M. Blanton, SDSS)

The scientists’ analysis of more than 70,000 galaxies demonstrates that the universe – at least up to a distance of 3.5 billion light years from Earth – plays by the rules set out by Einstein in his famous theory. While GR has been accepted by the scientific community for over nine decades, until now no one had tested the theory so thoroughly and robustly at distances and scales that go way beyond the solar system.

Reinabelle Reyes, a Princeton graduate student in the Department of Astrophysical Sciences, along with co-authors Rachel Mandelbaum, an associate research scholar, and James Gunn, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Astronomy, outlined their assessment in the March 11 edition of Nature.

Other scientists collaborating on the paper include Tobias Baldauf, Lucas Lombriser and Robert Smith of the University of Zurich and Uros Seljak of the University of California-Berkeley.

The results are important, they said, because they shore up current theories explaining the shape and direction of the universe, including ideas about dark energy, and dispel some hints from other recent experiments that general relativity may be wrong.

“All of our ideas in astronomy are based on this really enormous extrapolation, so anything we can do to see whether this is right or not on these scales is just enormously important,” Gunn said. “It adds another brick to the foundation that underlies what we do.”

GR is one, of two, core theories underlying all of contemporary astrophysics and cosmology (the other is the Standard Model of particle physics, a quantum theory); it explains everything from black holes to the Big Bang.

In recent years, several alternatives to general relativity have been proposed. These modified theories of gravity depart from general relativity on large scales to circumvent the need for dark energy, dark matter, or both. But because these theories were designed to match the predictions of general relativity about the expansion history of the universe, a factor that is central to current cosmological work, it has become crucial to know which theory is correct, or at least represents reality as best as can be approximated.

“We knew we needed to look at the large-scale structure of the universe and the growth of smaller structures composing it over time to find out,” Reyes said. The team used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), a long-term, multi-institution telescope project mapping the sky to determine the position and brightness of several hundred million galaxies and quasars.

By calculating the clustering of these galaxies, which stretch nearly one-third of the way to the edge of the universe, and analyzing their velocities and distortion from intervening material – due to weak lensing, primarily by dark matter – the researchers have shown that Einstein’s theory explains the nearby universe better than alternative theories of gravity.

Some of the 70,000 luminous galaxies in SDSS analyzed (Image: SDSS Collaboration)

The Princeton scientists studied the effects of gravity on the SDSS galaxies and clusters of galaxies over long periods of time. They observed how this fundamental force drives galaxies to clump into larger collections of galaxies and how it shapes the expansion of the universe.

Critically, because relativity calls for the curvature of space to be equal to the curvature of time, the researchers could calculate whether light was influenced in equal amounts by both, as it should be if general relativity holds true.

“This is the first time this test was carried out at all, so it’s a proof of concept,” Mandelbaum said. “There are other astronomical surveys planned for the next few years. Now that we know this test works, we will be able to use it with better data that will be available soon to more tightly constrain the theory of gravity.”

Firming up the predictive powers of GR can help scientists better understand whether current models of the universe make sense, the scientists said.

“Any test we can do in building our confidence in applying these very beautiful theoretical things but which have not been tested on these scales is very important,” Gunn said. “It certainly helps when you are trying to do complicated things to understand fundamentals. And this is a very, very, very fundamental thing.”

“The nice thing about going to the cosmological scale is that we can test any full, alternative theory of gravity, because it should predict the things we observe,” said co-author Uros Seljak, a professor of physics and of astronomy at UC Berkeley and a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who is currently on leave at the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Zurich. “Those alternative theories that do not require dark matter fail these tests.”

Sources: “Princeton scientists say Einstein’s theory applies beyond the solar system” (Princeton University), “Study validates general relativity on cosmic scale, existence of dark matter” (University of California Berkeley), “Confirmation of general relativity on large scales from weak lensing and galaxy velocities” (Nature, arXiv preprint)

Gravity Formula

The gravity formula that most people remember, or think of, is the equation which captures Newton’s law of universal gravitation, which says that the gravitational force between two objects is proportional to the mass of each, and inversely proportional to the distance between them. It is usually written like this (G is the gravitational constant):

F = Gm1m2/r2

Another, common, gravity formula is the one you learned in school: the acceleration due to the gravity of the Earth, on a test mass. This is, by convention, written as g, and is easily derived from the gravity formula above (M is the mass of the Earth, and r its radius):

g = GM/r2

In 1915, Einstein published his general theory of relativity, which not only solved a many-decades-long mystery concerning the observed motion of the planet Mercury (the mystery of why Uranus’ orbit did not match that predicted from applying Newton’s law was solved by the discovery of Neptune, but no hypothetical planet could explain why Mercury’s orbit didn’t), but also made a prediction that was tested just a few years’ later (deflection of light near the Sun). Einstein’s theory contains many gravity formulae, most of which are difficult to write down using only simple HTML scripts (so I’m not going to try).

The Earth is not a perfect sphere – the distance from surface to center is smaller at the poles than the equator, for example – and it is rotating (which means that the force on an object includes the centripetal acceleration due to this rotation). For people who need accurate formulae for gravity, both on the Earth’s surface and above it, there is a set of international gravity formulae which define what is called theoretical gravity, or normal gravity, g0. This corrects for the variation in g due to latitude (and so both the force due to the Earth’s rotation, and its non-spherical shape).

Here are some links that you can follow to learn more about gravity formulae (or gravity formulas): Newton’s theory of “Universal Gravitation” (NASA), International Gravity Formula(e) (University of Oklahoma), and Newton’s Law of Gravity (University of Oregon).

Many aspects of gravity, including a gravity formula or three, are covered in various Universe Today articles. For example, New Research Confirms Einstein, Milky Way Dwarf Galaxies Thwart Newtonian Gravity?, and Modifying Gravity to Account for Dark Matter. Here’s some information on 0 gravity.

Astronomy Cast’s episode Gravity gives you much more on not just one gravity formula, but several; and Gravitational Waves is good too. Be sure to check them out!

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

What is Space?

First, some simple answers: space is everything in the universe beyond the top of the Earth’s atmosphere – the Moon, where the GPS satellites orbit, Mars, other stars, the Milky Way, black holes, and distant quasars. Space also means what’s between planets, moons, stars, etc – it’s the near-vacuum otherwise known as the interplanetary medium, the interstellar medium, the inter-galactic medium, the intra-cluster medium, etc; in other words, it’s very low density gas or plasma (‘space physics’ is, in fact, just a branch of plasma physics!).

But you really want to know what space is, don’t you? You’re asking about the thing that’s like time, or mass.

And one simple, but profound, answer to the question “What is space?” is “that which you measure with a ruler”. And why is this a profound answer? Because thinking about it lead Einstein to develop first the theory of special relativity, and then the theory of general relativity. And those theories overthrew an idea that was built into physics since before the time of Newton (and built into philosophy too); namely, the idea of absolute space (and time). It turns out that space isn’t something absolute, something you could, in principle, measure with lots of rulers (and lots of time), and which everyone else who did the same thing would agree with you on.

Space, in the best theory of physics on this topic we have today – Einstein’s theory of general relativity (GR) – is a component of space-time, which can be described very well using the math in GR, but which is difficult to envision with our naïve intuitions. In other words, “What is space?” is a question I can’t really answer, in the short space I have in this Guide to Space article.

More reading: What is space? (ESA), What is space? (National Research Council of Canada), Ned Wright’s Cosmology Tutorial, and Sean Carroll’s Cosmology Primer pretty much cover this vast topic, from kids’ to physics undergrad’ level.

It’s hard to know just what Universe Today articles to recommend, because there are so many! Space Elevator? Build it on the Moon First illustrates one meaning of the word ‘space’; for meanings closer to what I’ve covered here, try New Way to Measure Curvature of Space Could Unite Gravity Theory, and Einstein’s General Relativity Tested Again, Much More Stringently.

Astronomy Cast episodes Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, Large Scale Structure of the Universe, and Coordinate Systems, are all good, covering as they do different ways to answer the question “What is space?”

Source: ESA

Gravity Equation

There is not one, not two, not even three gravity equations, but many!

The one most people know describes Newton’s universal law of gravitation:

F = Gm1m2/r2,
where F is the force due to gravity, between two masses (m1 and m2), which are a distance r apart; G is the gravitational constant.

From this is it straightforward to derive another, common, gravity equation, that which gives the acceleration due to gravity, g, here on the surface of the Earth:

g = GM/r2,
Where M is the mass of the Earth, r the radius of the Earth (or distance between the center of the Earth and you, standing on its surface), and G is the gravitational constant.

With its publication in the early years of the last century, Einstein’s theory of general relativity (GR) became a much more accurate theory of gravity (the theory has been tested extensively, and has passed all tests, with flying colors, to date). In GR, the gravity equation usually refers to Einstein’s field equations (EFE), which are not at all straight-forward to write, let alone explain (so I’m going to write them … but not explain them!):

G?? = 8?G/c4 T??

G (without the subscripts) is the gravitational constant, and c is the speed of light.

Finally, here’s a acceleration of gravity equation you’ve probably never heard of before:

a = ?(GMa0/r),

where a is the acceleration a star feels, due to gravity under MOND (MOdified Newtonian Dynamics), an alternative theory of gravity, M is the mass of a galaxy, r the distance between the star in the outskirts of that galaxy and its center, G the gravitational constant, and a0 a new constant.

Some websites which contain more on gravity equations, for your interest and enjoyment: Newton’s Theory of “Universal Gravitation” (NASA), Einstein’s equation of gravity (University of Wisconsin Madison – heavy), and Gravity Formula (University of Nebraska-Lincoln).

Universe Today, as you would expect, has several stories relevant to gravity equations; here are a few: See the Universe with Gravity Eyes, A Case of MOND Over Dark Matter, and Flyby Anomalies Explained?. Here’s an article about 0 gravity.

Gravity, an Astronomy Cast episode, has more on gravity equations, as do several Astronomy Cast Question Shows, such as September 26th, 2008, and March 31st, 2009.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln