Figure 1: A cartoon showing the “self-lensing” of light by a supermassive black hole binary system. Jordy Davelaar and Zoltán Haiman of Columbia University predict that this effect could be used to study black hole binaries that are too far from Earth to probe with other techniques
Topics: Black Holes, Cosmology, Einstein, General Relativity
When galaxies collide, the central supermassive black holes that they contain begin to orbit each other. This supermassive black hole binary attracts gas, which flows through the system to form two disk-shaped structures, one around each of the supermassive black holes. The gas in these “minidisks” heats as it falls toward the holes and begins to radiate light. Astronomers have detected around 150 galaxies with candidate supermassive black hole binaries. And, as observations become more detailed, they expect the light from the minidisks in those systems to bear recognizable, time-dependent signatures from black hole distortions . Now, Jordy Davelaar and Zoltán Haiman of Columbia University have theoretically tested how one such distortion—the “shadow” of the black hole—affects this light signature, finding that it causes a dip in the signal that should be observable in about 1% of candidate systems [2, 3]. The technique could allow astronomers to study black holes that are currently beyond the reach of conventional imaging methods (Fig. 1).
From gravitational-wave measurements of merging black holes to direct imaging of the plasma circling a black hole, the last decade has seen an explosion of observational evidence for black holes (see Viewpoint: The First Sounds of Merging Black Holes and News Feature: Black Hole Imaging Tests Einstein’s Limits) [4–6]. Yet despite these achievements, many questions remain about black holes, including a critical one: How do black holes grow to supermassive scales—millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun?
A black hole is a simple object, described by its mass, angular momentum, and electrical charge. Supermassive black holes are typically electrically neutral, so their mass and angular momentum parameters determine their gravitational fields. The gravitational field determines how the black holes bend light and thus how they appear to an observer on Earth. Light passing near the black hole is deflected by the gravitational field, producing a black hole shadow—a dark region that is often encircled by a bright light ring—whose size and shape come directly from the black hole’s mass and angular momentum.
Measuring a Black Hole Shadow, George N. Wong, APS Physics