Posted on June 7th, 2016

Out of This World – Gravitational Waves and Such

blackholeThis image illustrates a black hole forming from giant gas clouds. (Credit: NASA/CXC/STScI)

Black holes are something of an enigma to scientists, they are difficult to detect as well as hard to measure. They are also an absolutely fascinating interstellar phenomenon that spawn unending theories as to their origins and proliferation throughout the Universe. A recent study using NASA’s three heavy hitting telescopes, i.e. Chandra-X, Hubble and Spitzer, provides the best evidence for the origin of supermassive black holes. There are two schools of thought when it comes to black holes, they either start small and grow larger rapidly by absorbing gas and other black holes; or they start off large and grow at a slower pace. New research supports the second theory, that black holes can begin formation from the collapse of giant gas clouds, bypassing the steps in between. Researchers detected two strong black hole seed candidates using long exposure images from the telescope trifecta and computer models that support this theory.

Black holes are notoriously persnickety and difficult to detect. Up and coming telescopes like the James Webb Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope (no description needed there) are the future of black hole detection, allowing for the discovery of smaller and more distant objects, along with the detection of the first black holes in the Universe, called primordial black holes. Another recent study hypothesizes a link between these primordial black holes and dark matter, one of the most elusive substances in the Universe. I’d describe it further but I was rather lost after the assertion that dark matter may be made of black holes. If you would like to wrap your head around that particular theory, you can check it out here.

This animation depicts gravitational waves emitted by two black holes as they merge and move outwards. (Animation Credit: NASA/Bernard J. Kelly (Goddard and Univ. of Maryland Baltimore County), Chris Henze (Ames) and Tim Sandstrom (CSC Government Solutions LLC))

Let’s come back down to a level I am more capable of understanding, the first measurement of gravitational waves. I wrote about this previously yet I am still exhilarated by the fact that time and space were altered by the passage of gravitational waves. Since that time, NASA reported that less than a second after the gravitational wave passed though, there was a measurable spike in Gamma-ray light in the same general direction as the gravitational wave. I say general since there are only two Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatories (LIGO) making it difficult to measure the precise origin of the gravitational waves. As more LIGOs go online around the world, detecting the source of the gravitational wave will be easier. And if the two measurements are connected, then that narrows the search area considerably.

There is less than a 0.2% chance that these two events are not connected and merely a chance encounter. It has long been believed that two merging black holes do not emit any light due to the orbiting gas being consumed by the black holes and that gas is necessary for light emission. In the final moments when the two black holes collide during which the gravitational waves are emitted, it seemed unlikely that gas would still be present and not swept up before that time. As you can imagine, a new round of theories is in the works to explain this coincidence. Einstein was proven correct by the measurement of gravitational waves 50 years after it was theorized. Who now will follow in his footsteps and predict the next big breakthrough in astrophysics? Sending our minds reeling to the furthest corners of space and time…

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163


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