When Black Holes Dance


This spinning motion can actually fling surrounding stars and planets farther out into the surrounding galaxy. (P. Marenfeld/NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Do you remember the part in Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video where the two rival gangs square up for battle, only for the situation to escalate into a full-blown dance number? Well, astronomers have long predicted that a vaguely similar relationship emerges when black holes meet in a cosmic standoff (or dance-off), and now they even have compelling evidence.

A black hole is essentially a ridiculously powerful trash compactor -- a star that has collapsed under its own gravity, reducing itself and nearby matter to a singularity. Even light can't escape. So what happens when two black holes meet up? Well, scientists have long predicted that they begin to revolve around each other in what they call a binary system.

According to this week's press release, researchers from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory recently pinpointed the distinct light signatures of what they believe to be a pair of dancing black holes. While the black holes are invisible, the light signatures emanating from materials rushing in aren't.

The two black holes are currently less than a third of a light-year away from each other, so it's practically a slow dance at this point. Whenever the two finally merge, you better believe there will be sparks. According to an article in LiveScience, this is the sort of union that will send gravitational waves through the very fabric of space-time.

Dance with the Stars at HowStuffWorks.com: How Black Holes Work How Space Collisions Work How Time Works


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.