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Giant 'Pac-Man' Black Holes May Grow by Gobbling Other Black Holes

This visualization shows an accretion disk surrounding a supermassive black hole.
This visualization shows an accretion disk surrounding a supermassive black hole. (Image credit: Scott C. Noble)

Like the famous video game superhero Pac-Man, black holes may grow by gobbling up feasts — in their case, other black holes (opens in new tab), a new study found.

Simulations suggest that this could happen in the zones just outside the gravitational influence of supermassive black holes (opens in new tab), which reside in the hearts of galaxies. In these regions, gravity draws gas, stars, dust and even other black holes to the supermassive black hole.

Black holes drawn to the supermassive black hole get stuck in the disk of matter that surrounds it (known as an accretion disk). Over time, some of these smaller black holes collide, merge, and become bigger and stronger.

Related: Eureka! Scientists Photograph a Black Hole for the 1st Time

This scenario could help to explain a peculiar situation that astronomers observed recently when they detected a merger by measuring gravitational waves (opens in new tab) (ripples in space-time caused by large interactions in space, such as black holes coming together). Research teams around the world have so far identified 10 black hole mergers, but one of these mergers had unusual characteristics, with higher spin and mass measures than the others. It seemed to be outside the realm of scientists' current understanding.

The next step in understanding this strange merger, and potentially providing evidence that it resulted from a "Pac-Man" merger, would be to find more gravitational waves showcasing the signature of large, spinning black holes, the research team behind the study said in a statement (opens in new tab).

"This could be a unique way of probing the physics around these supermassive black holes," Richard O'Shaughnessy, a team member participating in the new study and an astrophysicist at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, said in the statement. "It offers unique insight into how the centers of galaxies grow, which is of course essential to understanding how galaxies as a whole grow, which explains most of the structure in the universe."

This research was published on Nov. 1 (opens in new tab) in the journal Physical Research Letters.

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Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc (opens in new tab). in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.