Groundbreaking discovery confirms existence of orbiting supermassive black holes

June 27, 2017
Artist's conception shows two supermassive black holes, similar to those observed by UNM researchers, orbiting one another more than 750 million light years from Earth. Credit: Joshua Valenzuela/UNM

For the first time ever, astronomers at The University of New Mexico say they've been able to observe and measure the orbital motion between two supermassive black holes hundreds of millions of light years from Earth - a discovery more than a decade in the making.

UNM Department of Physics & Astronomy graduate student Karishma Bansal is the first-author on the paper, 'Constraining the Orbit of the Supermassive Black Hole Binary 0402+379', recently published in The Astrophysical Journal. She, along with UNM Professor Greg Taylor and colleagues at Stanford, the U.S. Naval Observatory and the Gemini Observatory, have been studying the interaction between these black holes for 12 years.

"For a long time, we've been looking into space to try and find a pair of these supermassive black holes orbiting as a result of two galaxies merging," said Taylor. "Even though we've theorized that this should be happening, nobody had ever seen it until now."

In early 2016, an international team of researchers, including a UNM alumnus, working on the LIGO project detected the existence of gravitational waves, confirming Albert Einstein's 100-year-old prediction and astonishing the scientific community. These were the result two stellar mass black holes (~30 solar mass) colliding in space within the Hubble time. Now, thanks to this latest research, scientists will be able to start to understand what leads up to the merger of supermassive black holes that creates ripples in the fabric of space-time and begin to learn more about the evolution of galaxies and the role these black holes play in it.

Using the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), a system made up of 10 radio telescopes across the U.S. and operated in Socorro, N.M., researchers have been able to observe several frequencies of radio signals emitted by these supermassive black holes (SMBH). Over time, astronomers have essentially been able to plot their trajectory and confirm them as a visual binary system. In other words, they've observed these black holes in with one another.

VLBA map of radio galaxy 0402+379 at 15 GHz. It hosts two supermassive black holes at its center, being denoted as C1 and C2. Credit: UNM

"When Dr. Taylor gave me this data I was at the very beginning of learning how to image and understand it," said Bansal. "And, as I learned there was data going back to 2003, we plotted it and determined they are orbiting one another. It's very exciting."

For Taylor, the discovery is the result of more than 20 years of work and an incredible feat given the precision required to pull off these measurements. At roughly 750 million light years from Earth, the galaxy named 0402+379 and the supermassive black holes within it, are incredibly far away; but are also at the perfect distance from Earth and each other to be observed.

Bansal says these supermassive black holes have a combined mass of 15 billion times that of our sun, or 15 billion solar masses. The unbelievable size of these black holes means their orbital period is around 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.

A false color VLBA map of radio galaxy 0402+379 at 15 GHz. It hosts two supermassive black holes at its center, being represented by accretion discs with twin jets. Credit: UNM

"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.

"What we've been able to do is a true technical achievement over this 12-year period using the VLBA to achieve sufficient resolution and precision in the astrometry to actually see the orbit happening," said Taylor. "It's a bit of triumph in technology to have been able to do this."

While the technical accomplishment of this discovery is truly amazing, Bansal and Taylor say the research could also teach us a lot about the universe, where galaxies come from and where they're going.

"The orbits of binary stars provided tremendous insights about stars," said Bob Zavala, an astronomer with the U.S. Naval Observatory. "Now we'll be able to use similar techniques to understand and the they reside within."

VLBA image of the central region of the galaxy 0402+379, showing the two cores, labeled C1 and C2, identified as a pair of supermassive black holes in orbit around each other. Credit: Bansal et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF

Continuing to observe the orbit and interaction of these two supermassive black holes could also help us gain a better understanding of what the future of our own galaxy might look like. Right now, the Andromeda galaxy, which also has a SMBH at its center, is on a path to collide with our Milky Way, meaning the event Bansal and Taylor are currently observing, might occur in our galaxy in a few billion years.

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

Bansal says the research team will take another observation of this system in three or four years to confirm the motion and obtain a precise orbit. In the meantime, the team hopes that this discovery will encourage related work from astronomers around the world.

Explore further: Astronomers pursue renegade supermassive black hole

More information: K. Bansal et al, Constraining the Orbit of the Supermassive Black Hole Binary 0402+379, The Astrophysical Journal (2017). DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/aa74e1

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22 comments

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RNP
5 / 5 (8) Jun 27, 2017
An open access copy of the paper can be found here: https://arxiv.org...8556.pdf
cantdrive85
1.9 / 5 (18) Jun 27, 2017
It is with great confidence I can say there certainly is not two dancing unicorns as the above plasma ignoramuses claim.
rossim22
1.3 / 5 (12) Jun 27, 2017
It is with great confidence I can say there certainly is not two dancing unicorns as the above plasma ignoramuses claim.


A blackhole is as much of a unicorn as can possibly be conceived.

All this article claims is that two bodies are orbiting each other. The "ground-breaking" aspect is merely the resolution that they've observed (assuming of course the red-shift can ONLY be caused by the doppler-effect).

Speculation is still necessary to imagine that these two bodies emanated from the hearts of galaxies and that those galaxies were gravitationally colliding.

Cantdrive85, you have the mob mentality and nothing more. Name-calling and ignorance as you hold your head high in confidence knowing that no matter what argument is made, you have the general consensus on your side. Wow, what an incredibly enlightening scholar you are.
ScienceIsHard
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 27, 2017
If I'm reading it right, the paper says that you can fit the data with models for circular orbits, and the unknowns you have to fill in have somewhat believable if extreme values... therefore it's compelling to collect more data to see what's going on.

My interpretation is that it's weird that a circular orbit model would fit at all. If you didn't have that constraint I think it would be surprising if you couldn't fit lots of orbits to the data with reasonable values for the unknown parameters. If it truly is circular, that seems like it would require one heck of an explanation given the scale of that structure.
JongDan
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 27, 2017
My interpretation is that it's weird that a circular orbit model would fit at all. If you didn't have that constraint I think it would be surprising if you couldn't fit lots of orbits to the data with reasonable values for the unknown parameters. If it truly is circular, that seems like it would require one heck of an explanation given the scale of that structure.


Hm. One thing I see is, that for a given specific orbital angular momentum, the circular orbit has the lowest specific orbital energy. Since energy can be dissipated (transformed into heat or whatever), but angular momentum is preserved, all isolated binary orbital systems are expected to relax into circular orbits as time goes to infinity.
wduckss
1 / 5 (1) Jun 27, 2017
Radio galaxy 0402 + 379 (radio + elliptical galaxy) are distant 24 Ly. Speed at a distance of 730 ly is about 1000 km / sec. Eventual event (in the frontal approaching) would have been for 7200 years.

"Super-massive black hole is ~ 0.001 - 400 AU (https://en.wikipe...perties) The central diameter of our galaxy in the equatorial area is 40 000 light-years and from one galaxy Pole to the other one, 30,000 light-years (http://www.astrod...y.html). " from http://www.svemir...ack-hole
Da Schneib
4.7 / 5 (6) Jun 27, 2017
At 4 sigma, not bad but not yet an actual discovery. Looks pretty good though. We should know more after a couple more checks over the next decade or so.
IMP-9
5 / 5 (10) Jun 27, 2017
At 4 sigma, not bad but not yet an actual discovery.


5 sigma is an entirely made up threshold and it's only really convention in particle physics. In astronomy most people would say 3 sigma is the gold standard, much of that is because we don't have to worry so much about the look-elsewhere effect unlike particle physics.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (6) Jun 27, 2017
Huh, that's interesting to know. Thanks for the information, @IMP.

I'm curious and you might know: what are the chances that the orbit could be hyperbolic?
jonesdave
3.7 / 5 (9) Jun 27, 2017
@Rossim, @Cantthink, etc, What are your qualifications? Please tell us. My guess? High school. And you failed. Yes? As in, totally bloody clueless. Am I wrong? No, of course I'm not. Wouldn't have a bloody clue, either of you, eh?
Hey, Rossim! Remember a thread you left open on Cosmoquest? Because you were too thick to figure out that the effing solar wind is not going to create water? Time to go back and fix that, eh? Ask for it to be opened long enough for you to apologise for being thick. Yes? Come on, there's a good chap. Do you really believe the idiot Thornhill has the slightest clue?
Nah, mate. He's an idiot. Sooner you figure that shit out the better. Eh? Then again, as my Gran would say; "morons follow morons."
How long have these scientifically illiterate morons been going on about this drivel? Decades, is the answer. And how far have they got? Errr..nowhere. Goodnight woo boys.
jonesdave
3.5 / 5 (8) Jun 27, 2017
P.S. Falthammar. Magnetic reconnection. No surprise. To anyone that understands plasma physics. Eh? What do the unqualified morons at EU have to say about Falthammar? I'm guessing that he is just another one of the plasma ignoramuses, yes? Come on, morons, point it out. Write it down. Why is Falthammar a moron? Please let us know. Who is the plasma genius in those parts? (f***ing nobody: this is purely a pi** take). There isn't one, is there? Thornhill? PMSL. Scott? Ditto. Come on, chaps, you can do better than that.
Whoops, forgot - no you can't.
EmceeSquared
4.1 / 5 (9) Jun 27, 2017
"Now, thanks to this latest research, scientists will be able to start to understand what leads up to the merger of supermassive black holes that creates ripples in the fabric of space-time and begin to learn more about the evolution of galaxies and the role these black holes play in it."

I'm excited about the prospect of orbital gravitational wave detectors sensitive enough to detect smaller waves than LIGO did (over the noise of nearby trucking traffic). It'll be another couple decades, but LISA should be able to study these orbiting SMBHes:
https://en.wikipe...binaries

Complementing LISA will be the electromagnetic observations of these same objects with EM sensors after their own decades of further development.
jonesdave
3.3 / 5 (7) Jun 27, 2017
^^^Quite. However, according to the knobheads that publish nothing, and are listened to by nobody, it'll still be a truck driving past! That is the cost of being stupid. When it's in orbit it'll be some other excuse, because it doesn't meet their Velikovskian woo ideals. Ask them to explain? No chance. You'll just be a mainstream shill! They can't explain. They are too stupid. They aren't qualified. Et bloody Cetera.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (2) Jun 27, 2017
My interpretation is that it's weird that a circular orbit model would fit at all. If you didn't have that constraint I think it would be surprising if you couldn't fit lots of orbits to the data with reasonable values for the unknown parameters. If it truly is circular, that seems like it would require one heck of an explanation given the scale of that structure.


Hm. One thing I see is, that for a given specific orbital angular momentum, the circular orbit has the lowest specific orbital energy. Since energy can be dissipated (transformed into heat or whatever), but angular momentum is preserved, all isolated binary orbital systems are expected to relax into circular orbits as time goes to infinity.

So.... you're saying they've been orbiting each other a LONG time...
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (3) Jun 28, 2017
Huh, that's interesting to know. Thanks for the information, @IMP.

I'm curious and you might know: what are the chances that the orbit could be hyperbolic?

Then how would they be in "orbit" with each other?
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (1) Jun 29, 2017
@Whyde, it's still an orbit. Also, eccentric elliptical orbits can become parabolic or even hyperbolic due to perturbations. Unfortunately @IMP appears to be a drive-by poster. Can't hardly blame him with all the #gravitycranks around here, though, so I don't imply any judgment, other than the use of "drive-by." C'est la vie.

Meanwhile, define "LONG time." If you're talking a million years, yes. If you're talking a billion, maybe.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (1) Jun 29, 2017
@IMP-9 unless you can show that these orbits are unlikely to be parabolic or hyperbolic, I'm not sure, after thinking about it for a while, that your comment is meaningful. Sorry man, bring the data if you got it, if not I'll dismiss your handwaving about what's a viable sigma value for declaring a discovery. I consider the use of "groundbreaking" in the title here to be misleading clickbait at best, in view of the lack of supporting evidence.

My attitude has hardened after due diligence, due consideration, and due consideration. It's no better to do a drive-by without supporting evidence for someone who knows than for someone who doesn't. And sorry man, but astronomy doesn't exist any more; it's all astrophysics these days. And that's physics, and that means a "discovery" is marked by a 5σ result. I'll wait for more data before I accept "groundbreaking," much less "discovery."
nikola_milovic_378
Jul 02, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
EmceeSquared
3 / 5 (2) Jul 02, 2017
nikola_milovic:
You are neither scientists, you do not seem to know what black holes are and how, when and why they are formed and disappear. Black hole is the place where matter is transformed back into the form of ether from which it originated.


Please post links to peer-reviewed science articles proving that matter is transformed into "ether" in black holes, and what this "ether" is.

Because that is the only argument that scientists accept: peer reviewed articles.

If you can't post a peer-reviewed article citation, post nothing. By which I mean do not post. Do not post arguments, assertions or criticisms that are not backed up by peer-reviewed articles in this science site.
wardrho9
not rated yet Jul 14, 2017
It is with great confidence I can say there certainly is not two dancing unicorns as the above plasma ignoramuses claim.

EmceeSquared
Jul 14, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
sara1965
1 / 5 (1) Jul 17, 2017
'm curious and you might know: what are the chances that the orbit could be hyperbolic?

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