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17 June 2007

How Supermassive Black Holes Merge

What happens when two compact objects with millions of times the mass of our sun collide? Two small galaxies come together, merge their stars, and you get a bigger galaxy. Galaxies get bigger and bigger through galactic mergers. Though, astronomers have always wondered: what happens with the two supermassive black holes (SMBHs) found at the center of many galaxies?
An international team of physicists have developed a computer simulation designed to answer this very question. The following is the result of their simulation.

Gas Inflows and the Formation of Nuclear Disks in Galaxy Mergers

It turns out, the interaction depends a lot on the amount of hot gas surrounding each black hole. As they start to interact, this gas exerts a frictional force on the black holes, slowing down their spin rate. Once they get within the width of our solar system, they should start emitting gravitational waves, which continues to extract energy from the system. This causes them to continue coming together, and eventually merge.

When galaxies collide, the SMBHs at their centers merge into a single black hole of staggering size

The simulation is good news for scientists searching for gravitational waves. A gravitational wave is a fluctuation in the curvature of spacetime which propagates as a wave, traveling outward from a moving object or system of objects. If the mergers are energetic enough, they'll generate gravitational waves detectable across space.

High-resolution scientific visualizations created at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA)

Although gravitational waves has not yet been directly detected, it has been indirectly shown to exist. This was the basis for the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded for measurements of the Hulse-Taylor binary system (more information about this study can be found on Wikipedia).

Two colossal black holes that appear to be orbiting each other 100 times closer than any previously seen from NASA telescope

This post was written by Srikanth from Science-Core. Images collected by Ilker Yoldas from these sources: 1, 2, 3 and 4. If you are interested in contributing to the thinking process and become a guest writer on The Thinking Blog, find out more information here and be my guest!

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