Researchers detect first merger between black holes with eccentric orbits

Scientists have confirmed for the first time the merger of two highly eccentric black holes.

Egg-shaped eccentric orbits form when two black holes spiral toward each other and collide under each other’s strong gravitational influence. Therefore, highly eccentric orbits may suggest that black holes repeatedly feed on other black holes in densely populated areas, such as the center of a galaxy. When black holes merge, they send out gravitational waves, which differ depending on the shape of the black holes’ orbit, circular or oval.

Researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and the University of Florida studied GW190521, the most massive gravitational-wave signal observed in a binary black hole system, to determine whether the two black holes had eccentric orbits before they merged.

Related: The 10 Craziest Things We Learned About Black Holes In 2021

“The estimated masses of black holes are more than 70 times the size of our sun each, placing them well above the maximum estimated mass currently predicted by the theory of stellar evolution,” Carlos Lousto, RIT professor and co-author of the new investigation, it said in a statement. “This is an interesting case to study as a second-generation binary black hole system and opens up new possibilities for black hole formation scenarios in dense star clusters.”

Using hundreds of computer simulations, the researchers found that GW150521’s gravitational-wave signals are best explained by high eccentricity, according to the release.

The study also sheds new light on how some of the black hole mergers detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and its European counterpart, Virgo, are much heavier than previously thought possible. Their findings were published January 20 in the journal Nature Astronomy.

“This represents a major advance in our understanding of how black holes merge,” Manuela Campanelli, another RIT professor and co-author, said in the statement. “Through our sophisticated supercomputer simulations and the wealth of new data provided by LIGO and the fast-forward Virgo detectors, we are making new discoveries about the universe at an astonishing rate.”

The researchers also used gravitational-wave observations of GW150521 and its possible electromagnetic counterpart observed by the Zwicky Transient Facility to measure the Hubble constant, a unit of measurement used to describe the expansion of the universe. Their models suggest that black hole mergers exhibit a certain amount of eccentricity. This work was the focus of another study published last year in the Astrophysical Journal Letters by the same team.

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