Spin may reveal black hole history

Multiple mergers may create pairs that coalesce to make gravitational waves

merging black hole simulation

MERGERS REPEAT  Pairs of black holes that merge to create gravitational waves could have formed from a sequence of prior black hole mergers. Now scientists have some up with a method for testing that idea.

R. Hurt/Caltech-JPL

WASHINGTON — Researchers have devised a test to see if pairs of black holes — famous for creating gravitational waves when they merge — themselves formed from multiple mergers of smaller black holes.

The Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, LIGO, has detected spacetime ripples from two sets of merging black holes (SN: 7/9/16, p. 8). Scientists typically assume that such black holes formed in the collapse of a massive star. But in especially crowded patches of the universe, black holes could have formed over generations of unions, astrophysicist Maya Fishbach of the University of Chicago explained January 28 at a meeting of the American Physical Society. Or the merging cycle could have occurred in the very early universe, starting with primordial black holes — objects that may have formed when extremely dense pockets of matter directly collapsed.

Fishbach and colleagues studied how quickly black holes whirl around. In simulations, black holes that repeatedly merged reached a high rate of spin, the scientists found. That result didn’t depend on certain properties of the initial black holes, like whether they were spinning to begin with or not. “It’s cool,” says Fishbach. “The predictions from this in terms of spin are very robust,” making the idea easy to test.

So far, the spins of LIGO’s black holes are lower than the predictions. If the multiple merging process occurs, it could be very rare, so to conclusively test the idea would require tens to hundreds of black hole detections, Fishbach says.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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