A supermassive black hole is playing a deadly "billiards" game with 3 others

The universe is an unforgiving, chaotic place.
Brad Bergan
An artistic depiction of Sun-sized black holes at the mercy of a supermassive black hole.J. Samsing / Niels Bohr Institute

Sometimes, there's no escape.

Scientists have discovered a supermassive black hole that has trapped three other black holes in the monstrous disk swirling around it, where time and space begin to twist and bend.

But with three black holes in such relative proximity, the local environment of space-time has become a place where chaos reigns — where gravitational waves smash into one another, stretching and crushing the fabric of the universe itself, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature.

Needless to say, nothing living would survive long in there.

A supermassive black hole is bending the merging of smaller black holes

The new research explored a bizarre gravitational wave event witnessed in May 2019 that continues to baffle scientists. Gravitational waves are the ripple-like waves that propagate through spacetime when the fabric of physical reality is altered by extremely cataclysmic events, like black hole mergers. But the event in this study left one mid-sized black hole behind — and scientists can neither clearly see it nor explain it.

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Most mysterious is its circular path was oddly disrupted when the two black holes approached one another.

"The gravitational wave event GW190521 is the most surprising discovery to date," said Imre Bartos, co-author of the study and a physicist at the University of Florida, in a statement.

When the baffling signal first showed up in the data, the scientists thought it might be a black hole merger in a region of space where black holes were abundant. Star-sized black holes come into being when a large star dies. Each is is roughly one-dozen times the mass of our Sun. But supermassive black holes lurk in the center of entire galaxies (including ours), and are comprised of enough matter to outweigh their stellar-sized counterparts millions of times over.

That's a giant, heavy, reality-bending monster. Never go near it.

Black Hole Collision
An artist's rendering of a supermassive black hole, surrounded by a disk of gas, with two merging black holes carried along. Source: Caltech / R. Hurt (IPAC)

A supermassive black hole lurking near a cataclysmic merger

And while the May 2019 merger probably resulted in an intermediate-size black hole, roughly 100 to 1,000 times the mass of the Sun, something was lurking nearby that made it difficult to comprehend precisely how it came into being.

Astronomers hypothesized that one of the black holes involved in the observed collision had been in one before — in essence, saying that this wasn't its first rodeo.

If this were the case, the newly formed black hole would be 142 times the mass of our Sun. But for two collisions to happen in a row, the scientists examining GW190521 suggested that the observed event happened in the proximity of an active galactic nucleus, containing an especially dynamic supermassive black hole. This is a region of space where black holes might be very abundant, where older stars with enough mass to go critical and form into their own singularities are a common occurrence.

But the more recent study looked into a new possibility: The two black holes weren't swirling around each other's gravity upon colliding. Instead, their orbits were elliptical, resembling colossal ovals, rather than circles. This is something no one had seen before, since it was thought that little could interfere with the immense gravity of two black holes nearing impact.

Supermassive black holes disrupt the mergers of smaller ones

Physicists decided to model black hole collisions — and as soon as they posited another, supermassive black hole in the vicinity, everything changed. When you insert a supermassive black hole into this system, it creates a massive disk of matter spinning around it, like a solar system only way, way bigger.

And instead of planets, the active nucleus of a galaxy (supermassive black hole) is surrounded by smaller, stellar-size black holes that are scattered throughout the disk, like a handful of dark marbles thrown into a funnel. The recent research identified this model as a nearly two-dimensional system, because of the tremendous force of local gravity.

This caused the probability of an eccentric (or oval-like) merger between two smaller black holes to skyrocket, up to 100 times more likely, said Johan Samsing, an astrophysicist of the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark.

Eccentric tendencies - Roughly half of the mergers in such a disk would be eccentric, not circular.

"In these environments, the typical velocity and density of black holes [are] so high that smaller black holes bounce around as in a giant game of billiards and wide circular binaries cannot exist," said Astrophysicist Bence Kocsis of the University of Oxford, U.K., in the statement.

Now that this new dynamic black hole hellscape has been revealed, the next step lies in finding more black hole collisions in these environments. And, of course, never going there.

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