In a first, astronomers may have seen light from the merger of two black holes, providing opportunities to learn about these mysterious dark objects.
This artist’s concept shows a supermassive black holeA black hole is a place in space where the pull of gravity is so strong not even light can escape it. Astronomers classify black holes into three categories by size: miniature, stellar, and supermassive black holes. Miniature black holes could have a mass smaller than our Sun and supermassive black holes could have a mass equivalent to billions of our Sun.”>black hole surrounded by a disk of gas. Embedded in this disk are two smaller black holes that may have merged together to form a new black hole.
When two black holes spiral around each other and ultimately collide, they send out gravitational wavesGravitational waves are distortions or ripples in the fabric of space and time. They were first detected in 2015 by the Advanced LIGO detectors and are produced by catastrophic events such as colliding black holes, supernovae, or merging neutron stars.”>gravitational waves — ripples in space and time that can be detected with extremely sensitive instruments on Earth. Since black holes and black hole mergers are completely dark, these events are invisible to telescopes and other light-detecting instruments used by astronomers. However, theorists have come up with ideas about how a black hole merger could produce a light signal by causing nearby material to radiate.
Now, scientists using Caltech’s Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) located at Palomar Observatory near San Diego may have spotted what could be just such a scenario. If confirmed, it would be the first known light flare from a pair of colliding black holes.
The merger was identified on May 21, 2019, by two gravitational wave detectors – the National Science Foundation’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGOThe Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is a large-scale physics experiment and observatory supported by the National Science Foundation and operated by Caltech and MIT. It’s designed to detect cosmic gravitational waves and to develop gravitational-wave observations as an astronomical tool. It’s multi-kilometer-scale gravitational wave detectors use laser interferometry to measure the minute ripples in space-time caused by passing gravitational waves. It consists of two widely separated interferometers within the United States—one in Hanford, Washington and the other in Livingston, Louisiana.”>LIGO, and the European Virgo detector – in an event called GW190521g. That detection allowed the ZTF scientists to look for light signals from the location where the gravitational wave signal originated. These gravitational wave detectors have also spotted mergers between dense cosmic objects called neutron stars, and astronomers have identified light emissions from those collisions.