Flagstaff Astronomer Observes Pair of Black Holes in Orbit

Jul 24, 2017

A Flagstaff astronomer is part of a team that observed for the first time two black holes locked together in orbit. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports.

Artist's depiction of two orbiting black holes
Credit Josh Valenzuela, University of New Mexico

Most galaxies harbor a massive black hole at their center. When two galaxies collide, the black holes within them are thrown together in a spiraling dance.

Scientists have seen this in action for the first time with an array of radio telescopes.

Bob Zavala, astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Flagstaff, says, "The significance here is we can show we have a pair that we believe are in orbit about each other, and this is an example of source that could eventually merge and become a very massive black hole."

Zavala says this particular pair hasn’t merged yet and may be stuck in a stable orbit. The team plans to make additional measurements of their motion every few years.

It takes more than twenty thousand years for the two black holes to complete a single orbit.