We might be able to observe two supermassive black holes collide 3 years from now

If initial indications are correct, we're on the verge of witnessing a historic cataclysmic event.
Chris Young
A binary black hole system


Astronomers believe we may be on the verge of witnessing one of the most highly anticipated events in modern astronomy.

Fluctuations in light readings from the center of galaxy SDSS J1430+2303 suggest that a pair of supermassive black holes with a combined mass of approximately 200 million Suns are headed towards each other for a massive collision event, a Science Alert report reveals.

A supermassive black hole collision in real time

If the scientists have correctly interpreted the data, the collision could go down in history as one of the great modern astronomical events, alongside the first image of a black hole captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). In this case, the astronomers believe their data indicates the black holes will merge within the next three years — a minute timescale when it comes to astronomical observations.

However, the scientists do concede that more observations are needed to help confirm whether two black holes are on the verge of colliding at the heart of J1429+2303. Their findings have been accepted in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics and they are available in the pre-print server ArXiv.

The first black hole collision was detected in 2015 due to the gravitational waves the event sent rippling through space-time. However, that collision, as well as future observations, were all detected after the fact, with the gravitational force rippling out from the event for years afterwards. That means the collision at the center of SDSS J1430+2303 could be the first time astronomers could observe such an event as it unfolds.

A supermassive black hole collision in real time

There is one important caveat in the lead up to this cosmic event. Supermassive black holes generate gravitational ripples in a range that is too low for our current gravitational wave instruments to detect. Almost all black hole mergers so far have been detected by LIGO and Virgo, both of which are capable of detecting ripples in the frequency generated by binary black holes.

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Still, the astronomers believe the event will still emit a massive outburst of light across the spectrum that they'll be able to capture using other observatories. If and when it does happen, it could help the scientific community learn a great deal about the evolution of supermassive black holes.

We don't fully understand how supermassive black holes become so large, though there is some indication they might form due to binary black hole mergers. As the galaxy J1429+2303 could be about to host a cataclysmic supermassive black hole collision, astronomers will train their observatories on the region of space so as to scrutinize the data before and after and better understand its implications, as well as the mechanisms that led up to the event.

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