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How to make gravitational waves ‘sing’

Interstellar’s massive black hole would create unique signal when gobbling smaller partner

By
9:30am, April 20, 2016
illustration of a black hole's accretion disk

NEW WAVE If the supermassive black hole from the film Interstellar were real, scientists might be able to detect a unique signature of its gravitational waves as it swallowed a companion. This visualization shows the fictional black hole’s accretion disk.

SALT LAKE CITY — When black holes collide, astronomers expect to record a gravitational wave “chirp.” But rapidly spinning black holes, like the one featured in the 2014 film Interstellar, might prefer singing to chirping.

According to the calculations of Caltech physicist Kip Thorne, who served as scientific consultant for Interstellar, the movie’s black hole, known as Gargantua, must have had a mass 100 million times that of the sun and whirled about its own axis at breakneck speeds. These characteristics would explain the extreme time dilation on the world where the film’s intrepid planet hunters landed: In one hour there, seven elapsed on Earth, a phenomenon predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

If a rapidly spinning black hole merges with a companion, it would produce a unique signal — one that gravitational wave detectors might be able to observe, physicist Niels Warburton

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