June 27, 2017 (Phys.org) -- 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 gravitational waves 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.