Spitzer Telescope Observes Exact Timing of Black Hole Dance

Rodiano Bonacci
Mag 2, 2020

With new observations, astronomers have now characterised the way they whirl about each other in the centre of a galaxy called OJ 287.

However, since the smaller behemoth has an unusual orbit, the timing of these flares is irregular. After studying the outburst and the interaction between the two black holes, the scientists learned that the emissions of energy roughly occur every 12 years.

If the large black hole at the center of OJ 287 were bumpy, with its mass unevenly distributed, its gravitational pull on the smaller black hole would be inconsistent, which would affect the smaller black hole's orbit and the timing of the flares.

The OJ 287 galaxy hosts one of the most massive black holes ever found, with over 18 billion occasions the mass of our Sun.

Scientists recently came across two orbiting black holes that are occasionally colliding with one another.

There is a third vital component of this system, as well.

This larger black hole is surrounded by a huge accretion disc of dust and gas that whirls around it like water circling a drain, constantly falling into the object. Occasionally, the smaller black hole bumps into the accretion disk of gas and dust surrounding its larger counterpart.

It's been revealed that at the core, the OJ 287 is more intense than the most galactic nuclei.

The characterization has helped to refine the understanding of whether or not black holes are "hairy" - it seems that this issue has been puzzling cosmologists for decades now.

The reason the flares are emitted in their unusual intermittent pattern is apparently due to a unique "spirographic" dance the companion black hole performs as it orbits the primary. Each orbit traces out a long ellipse where the companion passes through the accretion disk twice on each pass. No two orbits are alike, however, due to how they "precess" around the primary.

According to NASA, over the past decade, teams of astronomers have devised different models to simulate how this binary pair behaves.

One computer simulation in 2010 was able to predict the flares within one to three weeks.

Past year in July, the latest model was tested and was able to accurately predict the outburst of light up to a 2.5 hour time difference to what was observed. Fortuitously, the observations made proved that scientist Lankeswar Dey and his TIFR team's model was indeed accurate. According to their study, it could predict the next flash to within just 4 hours!

Spitzer, which happened to be at 254 million kilometres away from Earth on July 31, 2019, was the only object accessible to mankind with a vantage point to view OJ 287.

The timing of this next flash brought up an unfortunate problem, though. One telescope was available, though. Two black holes, however, have shown they have a potential for beauty and coordination by performing a space dance that was caught by NASA's Spitzer telescope.

"These observations are setting the stage for observational campaigns that employ the unprecedented high-resolution imaging capabilities of the Event Horizon Telescope, in combination with the Global Millimeter VLBI Array and the space VLBI mission RadioAstron, to spatially resolve the BBH system in OJ 287".

From there, Spitzer was in just the right position to see past the Sun and watch OJ 287, and the flare from the black hole binary showed up right on cue!

Experts predict the next flares to occur in 2022, 2033, and then in 2034. "It was extremely fortunate that we would be able to capture the peak of this flare with Spitzer, because no other human-made instruments were capable of achieving this feat at that specific point in time". It is possible that the pattern of its orbit changes each time it goes around the larger black hole.

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