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Simulations Uncover 'Flashy' Secrets of Merging Black Holes
According to Einstein, whenever massive objects interact, they produce gravitational waves -- distortions in the very fabric of space and time -- that ripple outward across the universe at the speed of light. While astronomers have found indirect evidence of these disturbances, the waves have so far eluded direct detection. Ground-based observatories designed to find them are on the verge of achieving greater sensitivities, and many scientists think that this discovery is just a few years away.

Catching gravitational waves from some of the strongest sources -- colliding black holes with millions of times the sun's mass -- will take a little longer. 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.

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.

Read more about secrets of black holes

Francis Reddy, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.