Thursday, 24 March 2016

How do you form a massive black hole binary? (Part 2)

Following the recent discovery of gravitational waves from a merging black hole binary system, I've been dedicating a few posts to exploring how such a system could have formed in the first place. Last time I talked about how such massive black holes could form, and here I want to discuss how a binary black hole system could form.

Artist's impression of a binary system comprised of
two massive OB stars (Credit: Universe Today)
The answer to this question depends a lot on where the black holes formed. It's a lot easier to form a binary black hole system in a star cluster where there might be many black holes than it would be to form such a system in relative isolation.

Lets deal with the more difficult case of forming a binary black hole system in isolation first. Most massive stars (the precursors of black holes) are actually born in (and spend most of their lives in) binary systems composed of two massive stars orbiting each other. However, there are many events during a massive star's life that can disrupt the binary.

Schematic of a binary star system undergoing
common-envelope evolution
(Credit: Adrian Potter)

First, the star swells up and inflates to become a red supergiant. These are the largest types of star known, with diameters hundreds of times their original size and many thousands of times larger than our own Sun. If the red supergiant is in a binary system then it is possible that its outer atmosphere could spill over onto the secondary star, forming an envelope of material that encompasses both stars.

This process is known as common-envelope evolution, so-called because the two stars effectively share their outer envelopes (see the figure to the right). The stars in the common envelope experience a drag on their binary orbits, slowing them down and shrinking the binary system. The phase is typically quite short-lived, but can actually end with the two stars merging!

If the binary system survives the common-envelope phase it may be disrupted by the material the star has ejected during this phase. Red supergiants expel a considerable fraction of their mass through stellar winds. This weakens the binary system by taking away some of the mass holding it together, which causes the binary system to widen. If the system widens sufficiently the stars may actually separate and the binary will be no more!

Finally, the last act in the life of a massive star is a supernova explosion. Again, this expels considerable mass from the star and therefore from the binary system, which could disrupt the binary. In fact this is a commonly-considered mechanism for the disruption of binary systems composed of two massive stars.

This presents a difficult path for a massive binary system to negotiate if it is to become a black hole binary. The system must survive a potential common-envelope phase while one (or both) stars are red supergiants and it must survive the loss of considerable mass from both stars from stellar winds and supernova explosions that can weaken the binary. However, if the system negotiates these obstacles then it could form a binary black hole system just like that observed to merge by LIGO.

Next time I'll talk about a potentially much simpler way to form a massive black hole binary system, and that's in a star cluster!