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Light Signatures Used to Track Black Hole Collisions
Nov 2010
ROCHESTER, N.Y., Nov. 10, 2010 — Through the use of visible light and existing telescopes, a detailed blueprint has been created to guide astrophysicists pursuing supermassive black holes on a collision course.

Scientists pursuing supermassive black holes suspect that these giants merge somewhere in the universe roughly once a year, but they don’t know how to find them. They think the evidence is hidden in the powerful gravitational waves and strong bursts of electromagnetic radiation created when the black holes collide.

Astrophysicists at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore are tracing electromagnetic signatures back to the impact using computer models. They are creating a detailed blueprint that will guide other scientists searching for merging black holes using ordinary visible light and existing telescopes. Simulated models of these mergers also will aid the discovery of gravitational waves, proving Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

The team, led by Manuela Campanelli, director of the Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation at RIT, has won a $2 million grant from the cyber-enabled discovery and innovation program of the National Science Foundation. Julian Krolik is leading the collaboration’s efforts at Johns Hopkins, where he is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Both institutions received $1 million for the five-year project.

An artist’s rendition of two spiral galaxies — each with supermassive black holes at their center — about to collide. The latest Chandra X-ray Observatory results suggest that such collisions may cause extreme black hole and galaxy growth in the early universe, setting the stage for the birth of quasars. (Image: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss)

The scientists will use computer models to simulate what happens to an accretion disk — a doughnut-shaped ring of gas and dust — as a pair of black holes within it approach each other and merge. According to Campanelli, the surrounding gas and dust mixture is heated and will likely produce electromagnetic radiation — light — that could be detected by conventional telescopes such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, even before sufficiently sensitive gravitational wave telescopes are built.

“By being able to model this for the first time in a realistic scenario, with realistic conditions, we should be able to predict signals of binary black hole mergers that can be seen in the electromagnetic sky,” said Campanelli, associate professor in RIT’s School of Mathematical Sciences. “It’s a big deal because nobody has ever attempted a consistent and long-term project to model such a phenomenon.”

“The goal is to get a very accurate and consistent model of the electromagnetic emission from something that is also emitting strong gravitational waves,” added Scott Noble, associate research scientist in the Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation. “And I think the significance of the project is that we’re doing this in a very careful, methodical way.”

“Our project will make use of combined expertise in the simulation of generic black-hole binaries with magnetohydrodynamics simulations to model the accretion disk physics during the last phases of the binary, when both space and time are very dynamical,” said Yosef Zlochower, an assistant professor in the School of Mathematical Sciences and research faculty in the center.

This will be no easy feat, according to Campanelli. The problem requires solving the equations describing the behavior of ionized gases threaded by magnetic fields along with the equations comprising Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Looking at binary black hole mergers through complementary signals — gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves — introduces a new type of astronomy.

“From the electromagnetic radiation, you can clearly determine direction,” Campanelli said. “We’d be able to connect a lot of the physics happening within the gaseous environment and accretion disk to the binary black hole merger to the gravitational radiation. It will be multimessenger astronomy because it’s electromagnetic combined with gravitational radiation.”

Krolik’s team will model the premerger stage of the binary black holes using Newton’s law of gravity to describe masses that are far apart. Campanelli’s group will look at what happens when Newtonian physics breaks down and the black holes draw closer together and actually merge. Both teams will address the postmerger physics.

“We want to marry the two regimes and use the far-field results to feed into the close-field results to get a consistent picture of how these systems evolved in time,” Noble said.

The multilayered problem describes various stages of the merger in gaseous environments. Both teams are trying to “connect the dots” in this massive problem that draws on gravitational radiation and magnetohydrodynamics, the theory that governs the dynamics of gas or plasma in strongly gravitating systems.

The project brings together leaders in black hole research. Campanelli and team members Carlos Lousto and Zlochower announced a numerical breakthrough in 2005 that, for the first time, enabled calculation of how black holes merge, a task requiring large supercomputers. Krolik is known for his work on active galactic nuclei (single, very large black holes at the centers of galaxies that rapidly swallow surrounding gas), and is a leading expert in magneto-hydrodynamic theory, along with contributing scientists Jim Stone of Princeton University and John Hawley of the University of Virginia.

“The effort is therefore strongly multidisciplinary because of the multiple kinds of expertise needed: numerical relativity; magnetohydrodynamical simulation; advanced computational techniques, including parallel computing; the use of very large data sets; scientific visualization and observational astronomy,” Campanelli said.

“It’s a very challenging computational problem,” she added. “It’s huge. If you think of how complicated these black hole coalescences are without any gas or electric fields, you can imagine — when you add electromagnetic radiation and gas — that we will have very demanding simulations.”

Simulating the merger of binary black holes in gaseous environments requires access to considerable computer power. The RIT team will run the actual merger on its own computer, NewHorizons, and make use of additional resources.

“The project will generate a much larger amount of data than we are currently generating,” said Lousto, associate professor in the School of Mathematical Sciences at RIT. “Money allocated in the grant will add 200 TB of storage and processing power to the center’s computer.”

The RIT-Johns Hopkins team also will make use of other resources such as the machine known as Blue Waters at the University of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

The RIT team will also work closely with mathematics professors and Joshua Faber and John Whelan; postdoctoral researchers Hiroyuki Nakano and Bruno Mundim; and astrophysical sciences and technology graduate students Marcelo Ponce, Billy Vazquez, Prabath Peires and Ian Ruchlin. The scientific visualizations will be done in collaboration with Hans-Peter Bischof, graduate coordinator in the computer science department in the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences and member of the doctoral program in Computing and Information Sciences.

For more information, visit: 

The scientific observation of celestial radiation that has reached the vicinity of Earth, and the interpretation of these observations to determine the characteristics of the extraterrestrial bodies and phenomena that have emitted the radiation.
gravitational waves
Postulated by Einstein in his theory of relativity. They are waves traveling at the speed of light and exerting force on matter in their path. They are produced by changes in the distribution of matter.
accretion disksAmericasastronomyastrophysicsBasic ScienceBilly Vazquezblack holesBlue WatersBruno MundimCarlos LoustoCenter for Computational Relativity and Gravitationcollisionscomputer modelsgravitational wavesHans-Peter BischofHiroyuki NakanoIan RuchlinimagingindustrialJim StoneJohn HawleyJohn WhelanJohns Hopkins UniversityJoshua FaberJulian KrolikLarge Synoptic Survey TelescopemagnetohydrodynamicsManuela CampanelliMarcelo PonceNational Center for Supercomputing ApplicationsNational Science FoundationNew YorkNewtonian physicsPrabath PeiresPrinceton UniversityResearch & TechnologyRITRochester Institute of TechnologyScott NobleUniversity of IllinoisUniversity of VirginiaYosef Zlochower

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