This is a 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. Image credit: NASA/C. Henze
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. This version has music and on-screen labels.
Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/P. Cowperthwaite, Univ. of Maryland
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. Credit: NASA/C. Henze
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
Simulation of colliding black holes. Image credit: NASA
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.