Science News

Curated by RSF Research Staff

First observation of orbiting supermassive black holes

After more than 20 years of intense research, scientists from the U.S. Naval Observatory and the Gemini Observatory have succeeded to observe and measure the orbital motion between two supermassive black holes resulting from the merge of two galaxies. And this beautiful spectacle was happening hundreds of millions of light years from Earth.

Black holes are very intriguing objects. They present a gravitational singularity which can’t be explained by General Relativity and an accurate explanation would require the use of a quantum gravity theory which has not yet been developed. However, they were first theorized in the 1600s by Isaac Newton in the theory of gravitation and in 1916, Karl Schwarzschild showed that black holes were a “particular” solution of Einstein equations of General Relativity. Theoretically known, for a long time they remained very difficult to detect. It is only in 1971 that the first “observation” of Cygnus X-1 was made, the first astrophysical object fitting with the description of a black hole. Now we count more than one hundred potential candidates.

Beyond the technical achievement, the detection of two supermassive black holes is a great learning opportunity for the scientific community. The observation of the orbit will give us a great insight on how these supermassive objects (a combined mass of 15 billion times that of our sun) influence the stars around them and the growth and evolution of the galaxy. This will teach us a lot about the universe and its dynamics.

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