Two supermassive black holes could merge in the near future

The prospect of documenting this never-before-seen live event is very exciting for astronomers.

The very strange behavior of J1430+2303 a galaxy located about a billion light years from Earth intrigues Chinese astronomers. By observing its galactic nucleus, they noted that it presents very particular oscillations whose period does not stop shortening.

There are very few physical phenomena capable of producing such a powerful signal; everything seems to indicate that they are two extremely massive objects in orbit around a common barycenter. So massive, in fact, that this observation prompted researchers to formulate a particularly ambitious hypothesis; they estimate that it could be a binary system composed of two supermassive black holes whose combined mass would exceed 200 million Suns.

Supermassive black holes, anchor points of the universe

If so, it would be a very important discovery; this means researchers may soon have the opportunity to directly observe one of the events most anticipated by astronomers around the world, namely the merger of two supermassive black holes.

As their name suggests, these objects are gigantic black holes with an immense gravitational influence, so much so that they are capable of structuring galaxies on their own. They therefore play a preponderant role in the dynamics of the cosmos, and their study is one of the most important lines of research in all of modern astrophysics.

When two black holes are brought together in a binary system, they come together inexorably during a tango that can last tens of millions of years; they thus end up colliding and merging. This phenomenon is of great interest to specialists, because ite are these successive fusions which end up leading to the formation of the supermassive black holes which structure our world.

An ideal timing?

The problem is that these events are inherently difficult to observe. It took the contributions of two specialized devices (LIGO and Virgo) to make the first observation of a merger of standard black holes in 2015.

But these two machines are unfortunately unable to spot the gravitational waves produced by the merger of supermassive black holes, because their frequency is too low. So far, no one has managed to directly observe such an event.

However, this work could well change the situation. Indeed, the researchers’ models are formal; if they are indeed supermassive black holes, everything indicates that they will collide and merge in barely three years.

It’s a extremely short lead time on an astronomical scale, and a real bargain for astronomers. Because as mentioned above, this fusion process usually lasts millions of years. Must therefore be extremely lucky and fall dead at the end of the process to hope to observe the highlight of the show; this element alone is enough to explain why this prospect is so exciting for astronomers.

Be careful, however, not to put the cart before the horse. Because as it stands, the researchers have unfortunately not succeeded in confirming without ambiguity that it is indeed a couple of black holes. To avoid a disappointment as happened to Canadian researchers last February (see this article published in Science), they will have to confirm that the first clues have put them on the right track. They have already made additional observations that corroborated their conclusions, but unfortunately they did not allow them to decide once and for all.

The next step will therefore be to continue to scrutinize J1430+2303 to try to see more clearly before the deadline. Because if it is indeed a binary system of supermassive black holes, there is no doubt that astronomers around the world will point their telescopes on this corner of the sky to not miss any crumb of this grandiose scientific spectacle. .

But in the opposite case, if it turns out that the researchers were wrong in their interpretation, the sequence of events will be just as interesting. Because as it stands, science knows of no other object capable of producing such a signal; discovering their identity will therefore be just as interesting as witnessing a frontal collision between two gargantuan black holes.

The research paper is available at this address.

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