Simulations Uncover 'Flashy' Secrets of Merging Black Holes

  • Released Thursday, September 27th, 2012
  • Updated Wednesday, May 3rd, 2023 at 1:52PM

According to Einstein, whenever massive objects interact, they produce gravitational waves — distortions in the very fabric of space and time — that ripple outward across the universe at the speed of light. While astronomers have found indirect evidence of these disturbances, the waves have so far eluded direct detection. Ground-based observatories designed to find them are on the verge of achieving greater sensitivities, and many scientists think that this discovery is just a few years away.

Catching gravitational waves from some of the strongest sources — colliding black holes with millions of times the sun's mass — will take a little longer. These waves undulate so slowly that they won't be detectable by ground-based facilities. Instead, scientists will need much larger space-based instruments, such as the proposed Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, which was endorsed as a high-priority future project by the astronomical community.

A team that includes astrophysicists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is looking forward to that day by using computational models to explore the mergers of supersized black holes. Their most recent work investigates what kind of "flash" might be seen by telescopes when astronomers ultimately find gravitational signals from such an event.

To explore the problem, a team led by Bruno Giacomazzo at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and including Baker developed computer simulations that for the first time show what happens in the magnetized gas (also called a plasma) in the last stages of a black hole merger.

In the turbulent environment near the merging black holes, the magnetic field intensifies as it becomes twisted and compressed. The team suggests that running the simulation for additional orbits would result in even greater amplification.

The most interesting outcome of the magnetic simulation is the development of a funnel-like structure — a cleared-out zone that extends up out of the accretion disk near the merged black hole.

The most important aspect of the study is the brightness of the merger's flash. The team finds that the magnetic model produces beamed emission that is some 10,000 times brighter than those seen in previous studies, which took the simplifying step of ignoring plasma effects in the merging disks.

Supercomputer models of merging black holes reveal properties that are crucial to understanding future detections of gravitational waves. This movie follows two orbiting black holes and their accretion disk during their final three orbits and ultimate merger. Redder colors correspond to higher gas densities. Simulation only.

Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/P. Cowperthwaite, Univ. of Maryland

Frame from a simulation of a black hole merger employing both magnetic fields and the effects of the ionized gas in the accretion disk (redder colors correspond to greater density). This view is one orbit into the simulation, and already the first hint of what will develop into vertical funnel-like structure has emerged. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/P. Cowperthwaite, Univ. of Maryland

Frame from a simulation of a black hole merger employing both magnetic fields and the effects of the ionized gas in the accretion disk (redder colors correspond to greater density). This view is one orbit into the simulation, and already the first hint of what will develop into vertical funnel-like structure has emerged.

Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/P. Cowperthwaite, Univ. of Maryland

This frame shows the scene two orbits into the simulation. The initial magnetic field of the gas is amplified by 100 times. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/P. Cowperthwaite, Univ. of Maryland

This frame shows the scene two orbits into the simulation. The initial magnetic field of the gas is amplified by 100 times.

Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/P. Cowperthwaite, Univ. of Maryland

The black holes have merged in this frame from the simulation. Magnetic fields evacuate the region above the black hole and produce a thinner, hotter, denser disk in the immediate vicinity of the black hole than in simulations without them. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/P. Cowperthwaite, Univ. of Maryland

The black holes have merged in this frame from the simulation. Magnetic fields evacuate the region above the black hole and produce a thinner, hotter, denser disk in the immediate vicinity of the black hole than in simulations without them.

Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/P. Cowperthwaite, Univ. of Maryland

The final state of the merger in this simulation. The merged black hole resides within a hot, dense disk of ionized gas. The base of the low-density funnel is visible near the center. Such a structure could support a jet of particles moving near the speed of light, although one was not yet produced before the simulation ended. This model, which includes the effects of general relativity, magnetic fields and gas dynamics, produced an electromagnetic signal 10,000 brighter than in simulations that ignored the gas effects. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/P. Cowperthwaite, Univ. of Maryland

The final state of the merger in this simulation. The merged black hole resides within a hot, dense disk of ionized gas. The base of the low-density funnel is visible near the center. Such a structure could support a jet of particles moving near the speed of light, although one was not yet produced before the simulation ended. This model, which includes the effects of general relativity, magnetic fields and gas dynamics, produced an electromagnetic signal 10,000 brighter than in simulations that ignored the gas effects.

Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/P. Cowperthwaite, Univ. of Maryland

Simulation of the merger of two black holes and the resulting emission of gravitational radiation. The colored fields represent a component of the curvature of space-time. The outer red sheets correspond directly to the outgoing gravitational radiation that one day may be detected by gravitational-wave observatories. The brighter yellow areas near the black holes do not correspond to physical structures but generally indicate where the strong non-linear gravitational-field interactions are in play.

Credit: NASA/C. Henze

Frame from a simulation of the merger of two black holes and the resulting emission of gravitational radiation (colored fields, which represent a component of the curvature of space-time). The yellow areas near the black holes do not correspond to physical structures but generally indicate where the strong non-linear gravitational-field interactions are in play.Credit: NASA/C. Henze

Frame from a simulation of the merger of two black holes and the resulting emission of gravitational radiation (colored fields, which represent a component of the curvature of space-time). The yellow areas near the black holes do not correspond to physical structures but generally indicate where the strong non-linear gravitational-field interactions are in play.

Credit: NASA/C. Henze

Frame from a imulation of the merger of two black holes and the resulting emission of gravitational radiation (colored fields). The outer red sheets correspond directly to the outgoing gravitational radiation that one day may be detected by gravitational-wave observatories.Credit: NASA/C. Henze

Frame from a imulation of the merger of two black holes and the resulting emission of gravitational radiation (colored fields). The outer red sheets correspond directly to the outgoing gravitational radiation that one day may be detected by gravitational-wave observatories.

Credit: NASA/C. Henze

Frame from a simulation of the merger of two black holes and the resulting emission of gravitational radiation (colored fields). The outer red sheets correspond directly to the outgoing gravitational radiation that one day may be detected by gravitational-wave observatories.Credit: NASA/C. Henze

Frame from a simulation of the merger of two black holes and the resulting emission of gravitational radiation (colored fields). The outer red sheets correspond directly to the outgoing gravitational radiation that one day may be detected by gravitational-wave observatories.

Credit: NASA/C. Henze

Frame from a simulation of the merger of two black holes and the resulting emission of gravitational radiation (colored fields). The outer red sheets correspond directly to the outgoing gravitational radiation that one day may be detected by gravitational-wave observatories.Credit: NASA/C. Henze

Frame from a simulation of the merger of two black holes and the resulting emission of gravitational radiation (colored fields). The outer red sheets correspond directly to the outgoing gravitational radiation that one day may be detected by gravitational-wave observatories.

Credit: NASA/C. Henze

Frame from a simulation of the merger of two black holes and the resulting emission of gravitational radiation (colored fields, which represent a component of the curvature of space-time). The yellow areas near the black holes do not correspond to physical structures but generally indicate where the strong non-linear gravitational-field interactions are in play.Credit: NASA/C. Henze

Frame from a simulation of the merger of two black holes and the resulting emission of gravitational radiation (colored fields, which represent a component of the curvature of space-time). The yellow areas near the black holes do not correspond to physical structures but generally indicate where the strong non-linear gravitational-field interactions are in play.

Credit: NASA/C. Henze

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Credits

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NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. However, individual images should be credited as indicated above.


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This visualization originally appeared on the following tapes:
  • Black Hole Merger Simulation (ID: 2012082)
    Wednesday, September 26, 2012 at 4:00AM
    Produced by - Robert Crippen