Earlier this week, an international team of scientists from the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo Collaboration published two reports — one in the Physical Review Letters, and the other in The Astrophysical Journal Letters — about a strange gravitational wave phenomena they observed.
Approximately 17 billion light-years away from the Earth, a black hole that was 85 times the mass of our sun collided with another black hole that was 66 times the mass of our sun, resulting in a new black hole measured at about 142 solar masses. (If that math doesn't add up in your limited comprehension of astrophysics, that's OK; that's part of why it's so interesting.) Dennis Overbye described the aftermath in the New York Times as being, "eight or so suns' worth of mass and energy [that] disappeared into gravitational waves, ripples of the space-time fabric, in a split-second of cosmic frenzy, ringing the universe like a bell."
That's a pretty remarkable passage of prose. But what's more remarkable about this event is that it challenges our current understanding of how black holes are formed. Also from the Times:
Most known black holes are the corpses of massive stars that have died and collapsed catastrophically into nothing: dark things a few times as massive as the sun. But galaxies harbor black holes millions or billions of times more massive than that. How these objects can grow so big is an abiding mystery of astronomy.
Until recently there had been scant evidence of black holes of intermediate sizes, with 100 to 100,000 solar masses. The black hole created in the GW190521 merger is the first solid example of this missing link.
At least one (if not both) of the colliding black holes was too large to have been formed by a collapsing star; and as far as any scientists are aware, there were never any stars where those black holes had been located.
So the bad news is, black holes can basically smash themselves together and form newer, larger black holes, which can then consume other black holes to continue adding to their masses.
The good news is, if this trend continues, it means we're one step closer to a super-massive hybrid black hole swallowing reality and resetting our timeline back to January 8, 2016 — the day that David Bowie released his "Blackstar" album before dying two days later from complications involving another dense mass. Then at least we'll have another chance to make things right.
These Black Holes Shouldn't Exist, but There They Are [Dennis Overbye / The New York Times]
Image: Public Domain via NASA/JPL-Caltech