Newspaper article International New York Times

Black Holes Inch Ahead to Violent Cosmic Union ; Scientists Say Collision Could Be an Event That Wrecks Entire Galaxies

Newspaper article International New York Times

Black Holes Inch Ahead to Violent Cosmic Union ; Scientists Say Collision Could Be an Event That Wrecks Entire Galaxies

Article excerpt

Scientists say a pair of supermassive black holes appear to be spiraling toward a galaxy-wrecking collision.

In a galaxy far, far away, a pair of supermassive black holes appear to be spiraling together toward a cosmic collision of unimaginable scale, astronomers have said.

The final act of this mating dance, perhaps a mere million years from now, could release as much energy as 100 million of the violent supernova explosions in which stars end their lives, and wreck the galaxy it is in, said S. George Djorgovski of the California Institute of Technology.

Most of that energy would go into gravitational waves, the violent ripples of space-time that are predicted but not yet directly detected by Einstein's theory of general relativity, Dr. Djorgovski said. And there could be electromagnetic fireworks as well.

According to theory, he explained in an email, the interactions of the black holes would drive nearby stars away, like shingles in a tornado. "However," he added, "I think that the nature is never so neat."

Dr. Djorgovski, one of the authors of a paper published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, will discuss the research at a meeting in Seattle. The lead author is Matthew Graham, a computational scientist at Caltech's Center for Data-Driven Discovery.

The merging black holes manifested as a regular flicker in a quasar -- a mass of light and energy -- in a remote galaxy known as PG 1302-102. The most logical explanation, Dr. Graham and his colleagues wrote, is a pair of black holes circling each other less than a light-year apart.

"This is the most convincing evidence for a tight pair of black holes with a separation smaller than the solar system," said Avi Loeb, a cosmologist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who was not involved in the work, noting that other, less convincing systems have been suspected. He cautioned, moreover, that the evidence was not yet airtight; the apparent variation in the quasar light could be a statistical effect from not checking it frequently enough.

If it holds up under scrutiny, the system could be a bonanza for the young field of gravitational wave astronomy. It would also provide a preview of what will happen in our own Milky Way galaxy in a few billion years when it collides with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, sending the black holes at the hearts of both galaxies into an "intimate (pre-arranged) companionship," as Dr. …

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