In a galaxy far, far away, a pair of supermassive black holes appear to be spiraling together toward a cosmic collision of unimaginable scale, astronomers said on Wednesday.
The final act of this mating dance, perhaps a mere million years from now, could release as much energy as 100 million of the violent supernova explosions in which stars end their lives, and wreck the galaxy it is in, said S. George Djorgovski of the California Institute of Technology.
Most of that energy would go into gravitational waves, the violent ripples of space-time that are predicted but not yet directly detected by Einstein's theory of general relativity, Dr. Djorgovski said. And there could be electromagnetic fireworks as well.
© Santiago Lombeyda/Center for Data-Driven Discovery, Caltech
An artist’s conception of two black holes in close orbit. In the distant future, scientists expect two black holes to collide and give off a huge amount of energy.
According to theory, he explained in an email, the interactions of the black holes would drive nearby stars away, like shingles in a tornado. "However," he added, "I think that the nature is never so neat."
Dr. Djorgovski, one of the authors of a paper published in the journal Nature
on Wednesday, will discuss the research at a meeting in Seattle. The lead author is Matthew Graham, a computational scientist at Caltech's Center for Data-Driven Discovery.
The merging black holes manifested as a regular flicker in a quasar - a mass of light and energy - in a remote galaxy known as PG 1302-102. The most logical explanation, Dr. Graham and his colleagues wrote, is a pair of black holes circling each other less than a light-year apart.