Orbiting supermassive black holes are real, and this is a big deal

For the field of astronomy, it appears that a trickle soon turns into a flood following the first detection of a gravitational wave in 2015.

Since then, the confirmation of Einstein’s century-old theory has helped solve a number of cosmic mysteries surrounding galaxies and the formation of black holes.

Now, researchers at the University of New Mexico have, for the first time ever, been able to observe and measure the orbital motion between two supermassive black holes.

Despite putting in decades of research into the little understood phenomenon, it was not until the gravitational wave discovery that things began to fall into place as the collision between the black holes that created the wave will help us understand what leads up to their merger.

In their research published to The Astrophysical Journal, Karishma Bansal and Prof Greg Taylor used a system of 10 radio telescopes to observe a pair of supermassive black holes located approximately 750m light years from Earth located in galaxy 0402+379.

Despite the huge distance, it is actually perfect for observation here on Earth and over a period of time tracked their trajectories and – to their astonishment – the black holes were confirmed to be orbiting one another.

15bn times the mass of our sun

The supermassive black holes in question have a combined mass of about 15bn times that of our sun and have an orbital period of around 24,000 years.

Given such a timescale, in the time they have been observing it they have yet to see even the slightest curvature in their orbit.

“If you imagine a snail on the recently-discovered Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri – 4.243 light years away – moving at 1 cm a second, that’s the angular motion we’re resolving here,” said Roger W Romani, professor of physics at Stanford University and member of the research team.

By continuing to observe the orbit and interaction of these two supermassive black holes, science gain a better understanding of what the future of our own galaxy might look like.

“Supermassive black holes have a lot of influence on the stars around them and the growth and evolution of the galaxy,” Taylor said. “So, understanding more about them and what happens when they merge with one another could be important for our understanding for the universe.”

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