A new model is bringing scientists a step closer to understanding the kinds of light signals produced when two supermassive black holes, which are millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun, spiral toward a collision. For the first time, a new computer simulation that fully incorporates the physical effects of Einstein’s general theory of relativity shows that gas in such systems will glow predominantly in ultraviolet and X-ray light.
Just about every galaxy the size of our own Milky Way or larger contains a monster black hole at its center. Observations show galaxy mergers occur frequently in the universe, but so far no one has seen a merger of these giant black holes.
“We know galaxies with central supermassive black holes combine all the time in the universe, yet we only see a small fraction of galaxies with two of them near their centers,” said Scott Noble, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The pairs we do see aren’t emitting strong gravitational-wave signals because they’re too far away from each other. Our goal is to identify — with light alone — even closer pairs from which gravitational-wave signals may be detected in the future.”
A paper describing the team’s analysis of the new simulation was published Tuesday, Oct. 2, in The Astrophysical Journal and is now available online.