Black hole breakthrough: Astronomers to ‘buckle up’ for next black hole ‘revolution’

University of Birmingham researchers have told astronomers “to buckle up” for an exciting new period of black hole discovery. The announcement follows the European Space Agency (ESA) recently revealing its two major space observatories of the 2030s will have their launches timed for simultaneous use.

The next-generation X-ray space telescope Athena and LISA, the first space-based gravitational wave observatory, will be coordinated to begin observing within a year of each other.

It is difficult to predict exactly what we’re going to discover: we should just buckle up, because it is going to be quite a ride

Professor Alberto Vecchio

The pair are scheduled to have at least four years of overlapping science operations.

ESA’s decision will offer astronomers an unprecedented opportunity to map some of the universe’s most violent events, which have not been observed so far and which lie at the heart of long-standing mysteries surrounding the evolution of space.

They include the collision of supermassive black holes sitting at the centre of distant galaxies and the “swallowing up” of stellar compact objects such as neutron stars.

The gravitational waves measured by LISA will pinpoint the ripples in space-time caused by these mergers while the X-rays observed with Athena reveal the highly energetic physical processes in that environment.

Combining these two measurements to observe the same phenomenon in these systems would bring a huge leap in our understanding of how massive black holes and galaxies co-evolve.

The data should also finally reveal how massive black holes grow and the role gas around these supermassive monsters plays.

Professor Alberto Vecchio, Director of University of Birmingham’s Institute for Gravitational Wave Astronomy, and the study’s co-author, said: “I have worked on LISA for twenty years and the prospect of combining forces with the most powerful X-ray eyes ever designed to look right at the centre of galaxies promises to make this long haul even more rewarding.


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“It is difficult to predict exactly what we’re going to discover: we should just buckle up, because it is going to be quite a ride”.

Dr Sean McGee, Lecturer in Astrophysics at the University of Birmingham and a member of both the Athena and LISA consortiums, led the study.

He said: “The prospect of simultaneous observations of these events is uncharted territory, and could lead to huge advances.

“This promises to be a revolution in our understanding of supermassive black holes and how they growth within galaxies.”

The missions are anticipated to observe up to 10 mergers of black holes with masses of 100,000 to 10,000,000 times the mass of the Sun with signals strong enough to be observed by both observatories.

But because of the lack of understanding of the mechanics of these mergers, the observatories could observe many more or significantly fewer of these events.

LISA will also detect the early stages of stellar mass black hole mergers which will end with the detection in ground-based gravitational wave observatories.

This early detection will allow Athena to be observing the binary location at the precise moment the merger will occur.

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