The newly discovered source of gravitational waves is believed to be 142 times as heavy as the Sun and formed when two gargantuan black holes merged. The collision involved a black hole 85 times as massive the Sun, which until now was considered impossible. The “beautiful discovery” is, however, the first detection of an intermediate black hole – a class of cosmic bodies 100 to 1,000 times more massive than our Sun.
For the longest time, astronomers have classified black holes as stellar or supermassive.
Stellar black holes are typically between three and 20 solar masses, and are formed when dying stars collapse on themselves.
Supermassive black holes are considerably bigger – millions or billions times heavier than our Sun – but are rarer and sit at the centre of galaxies.
The new black hole merger was detected by an international collaboration of scientists, partly funded by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council.
When the black holes collided, they released shockwaves through the fabric of time and space in the form of gravitational waves.
Like a falling rock causing ripples in a pond’s surface, gravitational waves can be detected on Earth.
The newly detected source of gravitational waves is estimated to have produced a blast equal to the eight times the energy of the Sun.
The collision occurred between a black hole 85 times as massive as the Sun and a black hole 66 times as massive as the Sun.
And to make matters even more impressive, the remnant black hole’s signal was detected from some 17 billion light-years away.
Astronomers have dubbed the signal GW190521, after observing it on May 21, 2019.
The gravitational waves were detected at the Laser Interferometry Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the US, which is partly funded as part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
A black hole of 85 solar masses should not exist
Professor Alberto Vecchio, University of Birmingham
The findings were published today (September 2) in two papers.
Professor Alberto Vecchio, Director of the Institute of Gravitational Wave Astronomy, University of Birmingham, said: “When stars are too massive they blow up completely when they collapse, leaving nothing behind. A black hole of 85 solar masses should not exist.
“This is a beautiful discovery and a fascinating puzzle. Now we need to figure out how nature could have possibly assembled such an object.”
Based on our understanding of the universe, a black hole of 85 solar masses could not have formed by a collapsing star.
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As a result, astronomers might have to rethink how black holes are born.
Professor Stephen Fairhurst, Director of the Gravity Exploration Institute, Cardiff University, said: “Once again, the latest gravitational wave observation challenges our understanding of the Universe.
“We have observed the merger of the most massive pair of black holes to date, including one which is too massive to have formed directly from the collapse of a massive star.
“Future observations will tell us how common these massive black holes are, and provide further clues to their origins.
“However, they’re also sure to provide new and unexpected observations to challenge our theories in new ways.”
Dr Laura Nuttall, who is a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow and a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, said: “GW190521 is an extremely exciting event. This is the first time we have detected gravitational waves from the collision of such massive black holes – 85 and 65 times the size of the Sun.
“What is particularly intriguing is the size of these black holes. Up to now, all the black holes that LIGO/Virgo have seen can be explained by the collapse of a massive star to form a black hole.
“But you can’t produce a black hole that is 85 times the size of the Sun this way, due to a phenomenon called ‘pair instability’.
“This phenomenon means that collapsing stars, no matter their size, will not produce a black hole between 65 and 120 times the size of the Sun. So how did one of our black holes form?”
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