Orbiting Supermassive Black Holes Provides Insight into our Celestial Past and Future

Library Resources | Nick SanGiacomo| August 21, 2017

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Researchers from the University of New Mexico made a ground-breaking discovery recently when they observed two supermassive black holes orbiting one another. This observation marks an official confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves, which were first theorized in Einstein's theory of general relativity made just over 100 years ago.

Recently, two supermassive black holes were found orbiting one another for the first time. These supermassive black holes (SMBH's) are approximately 750 million light years away from the Earth and have an orbital period of about 24,000 years, “so while the team has been observing them for over a decade, they’ve yet to see even the slightest curvature in their orbit.” The supermassive black holes reside in the galaxy 0402+379 and have a combined mass about “15 billion times that of our sun.”

This observation builds on another made just last year, when researchers associated with the LIGO observatory conclusively observed gravitational waves that were “produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes" as they merged to form one massive, spinning black hole.

Now, just a year later, we are witnessing an event similar to the one that confirmed the existence of gravitational waves and much of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. 100 years ago, existence of the waves was first theorized; last year their existence was observed; and now, with this new discovery, we get to observe the profoundly slow process that creates them.

Celestial bodies and processes can be vague and hard to visualize. For an idea of what this process entails, check out this simulation of two black holes merging with one another.

Far out, man

But viewing things in space is always relative. Because the black holes are 750 million light years away from us, they are 750 million years in the past and the gravitational waves that escape from the two SMBH’s are as well.

Just last year, when LIGO first observed gravitational waves, NASA wrote that gravitational waves “could also provide information about massive objects, such as black holes, that do not themselves emit light and would be undetectable with traditional telescopes.” Thus, these waves hold the potential to unlock mysteries of celestial bodies we could not readily see otherwise.

Now, just a year later, we are witnessing an event similar to the one that confirmed the existence of gravitational waves and much of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

The issue of SMBH’s is of particular relevance to us here in the Milky Way Galaxy, as our galaxy has its own SMBH at the center of it called Sagittarius A. Looking farther off into the extremely distant future, one notes that our neighbor galaxy, called Andromeda, also has a SMBH at its center, and appears to be on an eventual collision course with the Milky Way. With this in mind, the fact that researchers are now able to observe two SMBH’s orbiting one another, even if it is technically taking place 750 million years ago, is of note for us all.

It’s been more than 100 years since Einstein first introduced his theory of relativity, and the elegant formula E=MC2 has been ingrained in the public consciousness ever since. These observations and confirmations made by researchers just in the last year represent a slow and steady ascendance of our own knowledge of the universe around us — both what it looked like millions of years ago, and what it may look like millions of years into our future.

To help kick-start your own research on supermassive black holes, check out this list of "Inspec Controlled Terms and Classification Codes for search query: “supermassive black holes”.

This paper is freely available in arXiv and is now indexed in Inspec.

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Nick SanGiacomo
Sales and Marketing Coordinator

The IET Inspec database is one of the world’s definitive bibliographic scientific databases and contains over 17 million abstracts and specialized indexing for premier literature in engineering, physics and technology. Indexing is done manually by subject specialists and results in the highest quality abstracts available. In this blog post, Nick SanGiacomo, Sales and Marketing Coordinator at the IET, talks about a recent discovery that is indexed on Inspec and confirms Einstein’s theory of relativity along with the value of engineering research and innovation. 

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