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Black holes and the prospects for measuring gravitational waves

Last Updated on Monday, 27 June 2016 14:49
Published on Wednesday, 15 June 2016 13:53

The supermassive black holes found at the centre of every galaxy, including our own Milky Way, may, on average, be smaller than we thought, according to work led by University of Southampton astronomer Dr Francesco Shankar. If he and his colleagues are right, then the gravitational waves produced when they merge will be harder to detect than previously assumed. The international team of scientists publish their result in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Supermassiveblackhole nasajpl smallAn artist’s concept of a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy. Credit: NASA – JPL/CaltechBlack holes play a fundamental role in astronomy, gravitation, and particle physics. They are enormously concentrated masses, sometimes millions to billions of times more massive than the Sun, and have gravitational fields that are so powerful that not even light travels fast enough to escape their grasp, hence the name 'black hole'.

Supermassive black holes have been found lurking in the cores of all galaxies observed with high enough sensitivity. Despite this, little is known about how they formed. What is known is that the mass of a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy is related to the total mass and the typical speeds (the "velocity dispersion") of the stars in its host.

The very existence of this relationship suggests a close co-evolution between black holes and their host galaxies, and understanding their origin is vital for a proper model of how galaxies and black holes form and evolve. This is because many galaxy evolution models invoke powerful winds and/or jets from the central supermassive black hole to control or even stop star formation in the host galaxy (so-called "quasar feedback"). Alternatively, multiple mergers of galaxies - and their central black holes - are also often suggested as the primary drivers behind the evolution of massive galaxies.

Despite major theoretical and observational efforts in the last decades, it remains unclear whether quasar feedback actually ever occurred in galaxies, and to what extent mergers have truly shaped galaxies and their black holes. Some of this is because modellers have had a tough time reproducing the observed black hole-galaxy scaling relations, and in reconciling the properties of nearby black holes with more distant populations.

The new work shows that selection effects – where what is observed is not representative - have significantly biased the view of the local black hole population. This bias has led to significantly overestimated black hole masses. It suggests that modellers should look to velocity dispersion rather than stellar mass as the key to unlocking the decades-old puzzles of both quasar feedback and the history of galaxies.

With less mass than previously thought, supermassive black holes have on average weaker gravitational fields. Despite this, they were still able to power quasars, making them bright enough to be observed over distances of billions of light years.

Unfortunately, it also implies a substantial reduction in the expected gravitational wave signal detectable from pulsar timing array experiments. Ripples in spacetime that were first predicted by Albert Einstein in his general theory of relativity in 1915; gravitational waves were finally detected last year and announced by the LIGO team this February. The hope is that coming observatories can observe many more gravitational wave events, and that it will provide astronomers with a new technique for observing the universe.

Dr Shankar comments: "Gravitational wave astronomy is opening up an entirely new way of observing the universe. Our results though illustrate how challenging a complete census of the gravitational background could be, with the signals from the largest black holes being paradoxically among the most difficult to detect with present technology."

Researchers expect pairs of supermassive black holes, found in merging galaxies, to be the strongest sources of gravitational waves in the universe. However, the more massive the pairs, the lower the frequencies of the emitted waves, which become inaccessible to ground based interferometers like LIGO. Gravitational waves from supermassive black holes can however be detected from space via dedicated gravitational telescopes (such as the present and future ESA missions LISA pathfinder and eLISA), or by a different method using 'pulsar timing arrays'.

These devices monitor the collapsed, rapidly rotating remnants of massive stars, which have pulsating signals. Even this method is though still a few years from making a detection, according to a follow-up study by the same team expected to appear in another Monthly Notices paper later this year.

 


Media contact

Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
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Science contacts

Dr Francesco Shankar
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of Southampton
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Prof Mariangela Bernardi
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of Pennsylvania
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Prof Alister Graham
Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing
Swinburne University of Technology
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Dr Alberto Sesana
School of Physics and Astronomy
University of Birmingham
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Prof Alessandro Marconi
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of Florence
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Prof Andrea Lapi
Area di Fisica
Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati
Via Bonomea 265, 34136
Trieste, Italy
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Images and captions

https://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/press/Black_Holes/Supermassiveblackhole_nasajpl.jpg
An artist's concept of a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy. Credit: NASA – JPL/Caltech

Further information

The new work appears in "Selection bias in dynamically-measured super-massive black holes: its consequences and the quest for the most fundamental relation", Francesco Shankar, Mariangela Bernardi, Ravi K. Sheth, Laura Ferrarese, Alister W. Graham, Giulia Savorgnan, Viola Allevato, Alessandro Marconi, Ronald Läsker and Andrea Lapi, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, in press.


Notes for editors

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