Using Gravitational Waves to Understand the Origins of Supermassive Black Holes

Supermassive Black HoleA computer simulation of the Universe could help identify the origins of supermassive black holes. The research, led by scientists at Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology in the United Kingdom, was presented at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting.

Gravitational Simulations

The researchers ran cosmological simulations to predict the rate at which gravitational waves caused by collisions between supermassive black holes might be detected. The first black holes were formed 13 billion years ago and capturing these gravitational waves could provide clues about what caused these monster black holes and where they formed.

“By combining the detection of gravitational waves with simulations we could ultimately work out when and how the first seeds of supermassive black holes formed,” lead author Jaime Salcido, a PhD student, said in a statement.

Detecting gravitational Signals in Space

The study combined simulations from a project aiming to create a realistic representation of the known Universe inside a computer, with a model to calculate gravitational wave signals. Scientists are working on the Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (eLISA) detector, which is expected to detect gravitational waves caused by collisions between supermassive black holes. The instrument will be launched into space in 2034. eLISA could help pinpoint the mechanism that created these massive black holes and when they first formed.

“Black holes are fundamental to galaxy formation and are thought to sit at the center of most galaxies, including our very own Milky Way,” said co-author Professor Richard Bower. “Discovering how they came to be where they are is one of the unsolved problems of cosmology and astronomy.”

There are currently ground-based instruments that work similar to eLISA, but eLISA will be in space and at least 250,000 times larger than ground-based detectors. As such, eLISA should be able to detect lower frequency gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves were first predicted by Albert Einstein 100 years ago. They are concentric ripples caused by events in the universe that squeeze and stretch the fabric of space time. Most gravitational waves cannot be detected because they are weak.

“Understanding more about gravitational waves means that we can study the universe in an entirely different way,” Salcido said.

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