These waves undulate so slowly that they won't be detectable by ground-based facilities. Instead, scientists will need much larger space-based instruments, such as the proposed Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, which was endorsed as a high-priority future project by the astronomical community.
Meanwhile a team that includes astrophysicists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is looking forward to that day by using computational models to explore the mergers of supersized black holes.
Their most recent work investigates what kind of "flash" might be seen by telescopes when astronomers ultimately find gravitational signals from such an event.
"The black holes orbit each other and lose orbital energy by emitting strong gravitational waves, and this causes their orbits to shrink. The black holes spiral toward each other and eventually merge," said Goddard astrophysicist John Baker.
To explore the problem in greater detail, a team led by Bruno Giacomazzo at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and including Baker developed computer simulations that for the first time show what happens in the magnetized gas (also called a plasma) in the last stages of a black hole merger.
The simulations follow the complex electrical and magnetic interactions in the ionized gas-known as magnetohydrodynamics-within the extreme gravitational environment determined by the equations of Einstein's general relativity, a task requiring the use of advanced numerical codes and fast supercomputers.
Both of the simulations reported in the study were run on the Pleiades supercomputer at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. They follow the black holes over their last three orbits and subsequent merger using models both with and without a magnetic field in the gas disk.
Additional simulations were run on the Ranger and Discover supercomputers, respectively located at the University of Texas, Austin, and the NASA Center for Climate Simulation at Goddard, in order to investigate the effects of different initial conditions, fewer orbits and other variations.
"What's striking in the magnetic simulation is that the disk's initial magnetic field is rapidly intensified by about 100 times, and the merged black hole is surrounded by a hotter, denser, thinner accretion disk than in the unmagnetized case," Giacomazzo explained.
In the turbulent environment near the merging black holes, the magnetic field intensifies as it becomes twisted and compressed. The team suggests that running the simulation for additional orbits would result in even greater amplification.
The most interesting outcome of the magnetic simulation is the development of a funnel-like structure-a cleared-out zone that extends up out of the accretion disk near the merged black hole.
"This is exactly the type of structure needed to drive the particle jets we see from the centers of black-hole-powered active galaxies," Giacomazzo said.
The most important aspect of the study is the brightness of the merger's flash. The team finds that the magnetic model produces beamed emission that is some 10,000 times brighter than those seen in previous studies, which took the simplifying step of ignoring plasma effects in the merging disks.
Their study was published in the June 10 edition of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.