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Two Supermassive Black Holes About To Embrace 171

Posted by samzenpus
from the old-BOB-approved dept.
Taco Cowboy writes "NASA's WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) satellite was looking at a distant galaxy, some 3.8 billion light-years away, and saw something rather unusual. At first they thought that they saw a galaxy was forming new stars at a furious rate, but upon closer checking, they found that they were seeing two supermassive black holes spiraling closer and closer to each other. The dance of this black hole duo started out slowly, with the objects circling each other at a distance of about a few thousand light-years. As the black holes continued to spiral in toward each other, they were separated by just a few light-years. Supermassive black holes at the cores of galaxies typically shoot out pencil-straight jets, but in this case, the jet showed a zig-zag pattern. According to the scientists, a second massive black hole could, in essence, be pushing its weight around to change the shape of the other black hole's jet. Visible-light spectral data from the Gemini South telescope in Chile showed similar signs of abnormalities, thought to be the result of one black hole causing disk material surrounding the other black hole to clump. Together, these and other signs point to what is probably a fairly close-knit set of circling black holes, though the scientists can't say for sure how much distance separates them."
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Two Supermassive Black Holes About To Embrace

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  • FSVO "about" (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I'm not sure you can use the term "about" to describe something that happened 3.8 billion years ago

    • by Dunbal (464142) *
      You're right - they probably already have!
    • Re:FSVO "about" (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Opportunist (166417) on Thursday December 05, 2013 @09:04PM (#45615127)

      Did it really? I think that's a philosophical question. Personally, I think not only space and time but also cause and effect are relative to the spectator.

      The light carrying the information that this is happening is just arriving here. The speed of light is also by definition the fastest information can travel. It may "in reality" have happened 3.8b years ago, but the effect can only now affect someone here. Even if you happened to have an observation post there and 3.8b years ago they noticed "hey, they're falling into each other NOW", and they sent that information right away, the information would not have reached us before the event since, well, the information of the event ITSELF is traveling at the speed of light, which, as stated before, is the fastest an information sent to us by the observation post could have traveled.

      Long story short, the absolute moment in time when something happens does not matter as long as you cannot overcome its information propagation speed. It will of course change if someone happens to find a way to propagate information faster than the speed of light... which would open a completely different can of worms if you ask me (but that's beyond the scope of this post now).

      What this all comes down to is that the absolute moment of some event does not matter, but only the relative moment that you receive the information.

      • That's rather solipsistic, isn't it?

        • Not necessarily, it's just relativistic. It's hard to break out of an absolutist mindset, but there isn't really a sensible way to say that the black hole is there at all without invoking a set of physics that outright demands you think relatively. Remember, we're actually observing phenomena which is consistent with a physics model that is rooted in relativity, not downloading absolute knowledge of the existence of black holes at this location in spacetime.

          The entire population of earth is essentially in

          • I've never been able to wrap my brain around it, probably because of the aforementioned "absolutist" mindset.

            I can see how an event being outside of any real sphere of effect makes it irrelevant to us for 3.8 billion years, but saying it didn't happen until it's been observed happening just sounds like an internet troll to me.

          • by RockDoctor (15477)

            but there isn't really a sensible way to say that the black hole is there at all without invoking a set of physics that outright demands you think relatively

            People were making self-consistent speculations about the physics of black holes before 1800. There weren't many of them, and they didn't spend much time (or ink) on it. But the idea does date back that far. Not as subtly as our GR and QM models, but it is an idea of considerable age.

      • Re:FSVO "about" (Score:5, Informative)

        by CapOblivious2010 (1731402) on Thursday December 05, 2013 @09:47PM (#45615373)
        You're close - but the whole point of relativity is that there is no "absolute time". With one caveat (see below) It's ALL relative to the observer. There are some observers (specifically those roughly motionless with respect to the earth and the two black holes, like us) for whom "then" and "now" are separated by 3.8b years. There are (or could be) other observers (specifically those traveling at something close to the speed of light in along a line between the black holes and us) for whom the two events are separated by far less time. For someone traveling along that line at the speed of light, the two events would be simultaneous.

        The only hard and fast rule is that space-time is divided into 3 zones:
        * The absolute past - events within (or on the surface of) the light-cone leading up to here-and-now
        * The absolute future - events within (or on the surface of) the light-cone starting at here-and-now
        * Everything else - events in neither light cone, which means they cannot affect us and we cannot affect them. Depending on an observer's motion relative to us and such an event, someone might see the event as happening at the same time as the here-and-now, or before, or after. It doesn't matter, because such an event is not causally connected to the here-and-now in either direction.

        The interesting thing is that the vast majority of the universe is in the "everything else" zone.... contemplate that one for a while...
        • The interesting thing is that the vast majority of the universe is in the "everything else" zone.... contemplate that one for a while...

          Hmm, I don't think this is correct, depending on what you mean exactly.

          When we talk about the universe, we usually mean the observable universe. Since we receive light from all parts of the observable universe (it's observable after all), that means we are in the future light cones of those locations (each roughly an expanding sphere in 3D+time). If we can see something, it can effect us.

          But, not all of those places are in our future light cone. Because of the metric expansion of space, which causes acceler

          • I mean the total universe, not just the observable universe.

            The universe is 14b years old; let's assume it continues for another 14b years. Ignore expansion for now, and we can conclude that it must be at least 14b light-years across because we can see almost back to the big bang. In a 2D space-time diagram (1 space dim + 1 time) you'd see a square with an X in it - we're at the center, the absolute past is below us, the absolute future is above us, and the "neither past nor future" (let's call this the
            • by RockDoctor (15477)

              I mean the total universe, not just the observable universe.

              The universe is 14b years old;

              The portion of the universe which can be observed from our location in space time has a (almost) homogeneous state, the so called hydrogen re-combination event, about 13.7 Gyr ago. What happened outside that light cone is less certain, and there are hints in the WMAP data set (soon to be updated! Be excited, very excited!) that in some directions the events outside our light cone were not the same as in other directi

        • by Hatta (162192)

          Everything else - events in neither light cone, which means they cannot affect us and we cannot affect them.

          It will affect us eventually, when both light cones get large enough to intersect. That is, unless they are far enough away that the expansion of the universe outpaces the growth of the light cone.

          Depending on an observer's motion relative to us and such an event, someone might see the event as happening at the same time as the here-and-now, or before, or after.

          Wouldn't such an observer be moving fa

          • It will affect us eventually, when both light cones get large enough to intersect. That is, unless they are far enough away that the expansion of the universe outpaces the growth of the light cone

            Sure, but that's not the point - relativity talks about "events" which are particular points in space and in time. You're treating "us" as a point in space but a line in time.

            Wouldn't such an observer be moving faster than the speed of light?

            Nope - that's the whole point. Relativity is actually pretty simple (special relativity, anyway), but you have to get past a couple of things, and one of the biggies is that space and time don't work the way you think they do. Your "common sense" has jumped to unwarranted conclusions based on severely limited experience, and until you

            • by Hatta (162192)

              We're still talking about two events that are outside of each others light cones. In order for an observer to observe both events at all, let alone ascribe them an order in time, he'd have to be travelling faster than the speed of light.

              I'm quite aware of how special relativity works, thank you.

              • We're still talking about two events that are outside of each others light cones. In order for an observer to observe both events at all, let alone ascribe them an order in time, he'd have to be travelling faster than the speed of light.

                No, the observer just needs to be situated so that both events are in his past light cone. That's completely independent of whether they're in each other's past or future light cones.

                See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relativity_of_simultaneity [wikipedia.org]

      • by Anonymous Coward

        It does when your wife says she's three month pregnant, and you were on a business trip three months ago.

        • by digitig (1056110)

          It does when your wife says she's three month pregnant, and you were on a business trip three months ago.

          Good job she came with me, so I didn't have to calculate the relativistic effect of only one of us making the journey.

      • but also cause and effect are relative to the spectator

        Well I suppose facts and science are relative to a spectator...at least until they try to replicate them.

      • by cusco (717999)

        The speed of light is also by definition the fastest information can travel if that information is carried by light. If the information is carried by some other method, such as sound waves, then the speed of sound is the fastest it can travel. Remember, we can't even measure around 90 percent of the mass and energy in this universe yet. I would be very surprised if we don't eventually find something faster than light, at which point that will be your new speed limit.

        • Assuming that our current understanding of physics is correct, there is nothing that can travel beyond the speed of light through space-time.

          That does leave us with some loopholes.
          1. Our understanding of physics could be incomplete. There is much yet to discover, so this may be the case. However, the current models are verified extremely precisely.
          2. Warp drives. Not traveling through space-time but morphing it would help. However this seems to require massive amounts of energy. I believe the last ca
          • Regarding point 3 "we have no reason to believe...", that same argument was used against black holes once. From http://greekgeek.hubpages.com/hub/Real-Photos-of-Black-Holes [hubpages.com]:

            Einstein himself thought they were "too strange to be real."

            "When I was a PhD student, people used to giggle when you hear[d] about black holes. They're like unicorns, mythical creatures. We call this the 'giggle factor.' People would say, 'Beam me up, Scotty.' Well, no one is laughing anymore."

            ~ Dr. Michio Kaku, Theoretical Physicist, o

            • Yep, when I was at school black holes were considered a "mathematical curiosity", it was considered "impossible" to detect planets around nearby starts with an Earth bound telescope, the phrase "big bang theory" was still a derisive comment about said theory, there was still a debate about the reality of tectonic plates....the list is long and I'm only in my 50's. - This phenomena is what Asimov referred to as The relativity of wrong [tufts.edu]
            • I didn't say there wasn't one. I just said we have no reason to believe there is one. That is a cold, hard fact.
              At this point it is like a god. No one can prove that he exists and no one can prove that he doesn't exist. We once logically assumed that the universe was created by a god. Any other cause was more complex with the information we had. Nowadays we know more. Much more.
              In the same way we should assume now that there is no subspace. That doesn't mean that we should hold to this assumption when ex
              • by cusco (717999)

                Most of the theories that attempt to unify quantum and relativistic space assume multiple (7 to 25) additional dimensions that we currently can't detect and for which we have only the most vague of descriptions. Light is the fastest phenomena in the space/time that we know, nothing says that there can't be something faster that we currently can't detect.

            • But there was reason to believe in black holes. There was no reason to believe an object with an escape velocity faster than the speed of light couldn't exist. They were strange but they solved a very simple problem. Subspace on the other hand is just wishful thinking for those who want to think FTL travel will someday be possible. There is no reason to believe it might or even should exist based on anything we know about the universe.

        • by Bengie (1121981)
          I thought the speed of light is the fastest information can travel through space, but not to say there aren't shortcuts to using space.
          • by cusco (717999)

            The fastest thing currently known. Nothing says that there isn't something faster that we currently can't detect. A century and a half ago we couldn't detect ultraviolet light or cosmic rays, and half a century ago we weren't even sure that neutrinos actually existed.

        • by sFurbo (1361249)
          The problem is that moving information faster than the speed of light in a relativistic universe is equivalent to having an effect precede its cause, i.e. breaking causality. Or, more succinctly, {causality, relativity, FTL}, pick two.
      • The speed of light is also by definition the fastest information can travel.

        We once thought the sound barrier was unbreakable. So far no matter can travel through space faster than light, but that won't stop us from using relativity to change the definition of travel. [nasa.gov] There is a horizon beyond which we can not currently see -- Galaxies are travelling away from us faster than the speed of light from them can reach us. Aren't they traveling faster than light? Oh, that's expansion... So, if it's space that's moving then the matter doesn't have to travel through space to achieve f

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by michelcolman (1208008)

          Galaxies are travelling away from us faster than the speed of light from them can reach us. Aren't they traveling faster than light? Oh, that's expansion... So, if it's space that's moving then the matter doesn't have to travel through space to achieve faster than light speeds.

          That's just the result of a weird (put pragmatically practical) definition of space-time coordinates called "co-moving coordinates".

          According to the "normal" rules of special relativity, the speed of light relative to us is the same everywhere, there's no such thing as "space itself expanding", and nothing goes faster than light. However, using those same definitions, we are the oldest part of the universe (using our reference system), all distant galaxies moving away from us at high speed are aging more sl

        • The sound barrier was not the same at all. We knew of things going faster than sound, we just didn't think we could engineer a machine that could survive the stress of breaking the sound barrier. It's like building a fusion reactor, we know in theory it's possible but some people believe the engineering challenges are too great to overcome. The speed of light is different. We know of nothing that goes faster than light, and all the evidence we have supports this theory that nothing can go faster.

      • by cyn1c77 (928549)

        Did it really? I think that's a philosophical question. Personally, I think not only space and time but also cause and effect are relative to the spectator.

        The light carrying the information that this is happening is just arriving here. The speed of light is also by definition the fastest information can travel. It may "in reality" have happened 3.8b years ago, but the effect can only now affect someone here. Even if you happened to have an observation post there and 3.8b years ago they noticed "hey, they're falling into each other NOW", and they sent that information right away, the information would not have reached us before the event since, well, the information of the event ITSELF is traveling at the speed of light, which, as stated before, is the fastest an information sent to us by the observation post could have traveled.

        Long story short, the absolute moment in time when something happens does not matter as long as you cannot overcome its information propagation speed. It will of course change if someone happens to find a way to propagate information faster than the speed of light... which would open a completely different can of worms if you ask me (but that's beyond the scope of this post now).

        What this all comes down to is that the absolute moment of some event does not matter, but only the relative moment that you receive the information.

        You're making the issue more complicated than it really is. (Perhaps you are also a cosmologist!)

        Fact 1: Our current understanding of physics implies that this event happened 3.8 billion years ago.

        Fact 2: In colloquial English, "About to" indicates that the preceeding action is imminent.

        Given that "about to" indicates a future action and this event happened in the past, the title is either (a) illogical, (b) inconsistent with the English language, or (c) not consistent with our current understanding of phy

    • by timeOday (582209)
      It's unobservable to humans on a whole 'nother dimension anyways - duration. I don't think anything on this scale can change noticeably during our paltry lifetimes.
    • by Sockatume (732728)

      Less than 3.8 billion years ago - space is expanding.

    • Well, time does slow down in the vicinity of a black hole, so they may still be "just about" to embrace, and forever will be from our point of view. Depending on what coordinate system you use, of course.

      We can never actually see something cross the event horizon of a black hole, objects will always slow down to a halt before the event horizon (even though from the point of view of the object itself, time continues normally and it crosses the boundary in a finite amount of time). I expect the same is true f

      • The whole thing will just appear to freeze.

        Doesn't it also become unobservable at the same time? Err, when I say time, I mean... uh...

  • Old news (Score:5, Funny)

    by caseih (160668) on Thursday December 05, 2013 @08:18PM (#45614841)

    Happened over two billion years ago and we're just hearing about it now!? Typical.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    So.. if they observed these black holes at a few thousand light years apart, and then some time later (assuming less than a few thousand years later) at just a few light years apart... does this mean that they are moving toward each other at faster than the speed of light?

    • by Dunbal (464142) *
      Either that or distance is being seriously compressed!
      • by ls671 (1122017)

        Or the black holes, due to gravitational forces affecting each other, grow in size at a rate than looks faster than the speed of light thus making them look closer.

        Whatever it is, I heard that the space time continuum is affected in areas where black holes are present. It might then be hard to "see" what is really happening. The links in the summary state they aren't sure about what is going on yet.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spacetime [wikipedia.org]

    • by CastrTroy (595695)
      I thought the exact same thing. Seems like there's some kind of contradiction. Even if they were both moving at the speed of light, toward each other it would still take many centuries for them to collide.
    • if they observed these black holes at a few thousand light years apart, and then some time later (assuming less than a few thousand years later) at just a few light years apart...

      That's a big "if." A casual reading of the summary might lead you to infer it, but it's more likely something they've extrapolated from the current observations.

  • Then won't it take them thousands of years to close the gap? What am I missing here?
  • Really? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Frosty Piss (770223) * on Thursday December 05, 2013 @08:26PM (#45614883)

    Two Supermassive Black Holes About To Embrace

    Kanye West and Kim Kardashian?

  • Gravitational Waves (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 05, 2013 @08:29PM (#45614901)

    Given the countless galaxies, each with its own supermassive black hole, just like intersecting waves, the gravitational waves could theoretically act like waves in the electromagnetic spectrum, or classical physics experiments with waves. Some waves would cancel, others would be much larger than the 2 source standing waves, and thus would appear as a stronger signal to a gravitational wave detector, given said detector was sensitive enough.

    Gravitational waves could also bring us closer to the point in time of the "big bang" than the cosmic microwave background radiation images. I sincerely hope this discovery, gives solid reason to develop said gravitational wave detector. Kudo's to the NASA WISE team!

  • "they were separated by just a few light-years" sounds like my high school drama.
  • You could say "About to" if it where 3.8 billion years ago. Just because we are about to see it doesn't change the fact that it already happened about 3.8 billion years ago.
    • Only in this reference frame.

  • From the blackhole standpoints they will never 'embrace'. Nor do they care, they are blackholes!
    • Actually, it's the other way around. From their point of view, they will embrace just fine. From our point of view, they never will.

      If you fall into a black hole, outside observers will see you slowing down to a halt, and your watch stopping, before you reach the event horizon. For you, though, time will continue normally and you will cross the event horizon in a finite amount of time.

      In fact, depending on what coordinate system you use, black holes may not even exist yet. Every "almost-black-hole" is stuck

  • by PopeRatzo (965947) on Thursday December 05, 2013 @09:22PM (#45615225) Homepage Journal

    Glaciers melting in the dead of night
    And the superstars sucked into the supermassive
    Supermassive black hole

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Stupid question, but,

    If they were 1000 LY's apart, and are now just "a few" LY's apart, *during the timespan of human scientific observation via modern optical tech*, does that indicate they are traveling FTL?

    eg, they moved 1000 LY inside of (50?) earth years.

  • So we are to conceive the notion of two singularities merging to become one. But a singularity has zero size and therefore has zero location. And even though the two combine the size will stay the same. If i tried to make an equation with this mess it would read huge nowhere of zero size plus another huge nowhere of size equals another nowhere no larger than either of the original nowheres. So there we have it 1 plus one now equals 1. I think I need more meds.
    • See it like this:
      A black hole (size 0) combines with another black hole (size 0) to form a bigger black hole (size 0). 0+0=0 so that works.
      As for location: black holes do have a location. It's at the center of their schwarschild radius.

      All this is difficult to know for sure. We can hardly go and take a look.
  • They look out and see 2 black holes thousands of light years apart. Then they look later (not thousands of years later, mind you) and they're mere light years apart. I have such a poor understanding of how this is possible. Can anyone explain?
    • by Urkki (668283)

      They're looking at the jets, which conveniently record the history of the interaction, like a recording tape that is shooting out of them.

      The black holes themselves are still moving quite "normally".

  • Perhaps what we are seeing is an engineering effort or scientific experiment beyond our understanding. Perhaps one day, if we survive our infancy, we to will find a practical use for black holes. Assuming an upper limit to technology does not prevent their manipulation. As it stands - with physics in general so incomplete - who knows? Don't mind me, I'm posting on very little sleep.

If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts. -- Albert Einstein

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