Galactic Evolution Conceptual Illustration

The first galaxies were small and very irregularly shaped. We believe that larger and more structured galaxies like the Milky Way formed through the mergers or these smaller and less structured galaxies. Our experiment will reveal unique insights into the physical processes governing this process.   Illustration: Olena Shmahalo


Galaxies and Supermassive Black Holes

The first galaxies in the universe were formed over 13 billion years ago. These early galaxies are very small and irregularly shaped, and younger galaxies are much more massive and more structured. We think this evolution has happened through a process called hierarchical galaxy formation, in which smaller galaxies merge to form bigger and bigger galaxies. At the center of all of these massive galaxies are supermassive black holes which have masses of millions to billions of times that of the Sun. Following a galaxy merger, the two supermassive black holes from each galaxy together to eventually form a single even more massive black hole.

Lifecycle of Binary Supermassive Black Holes

Designed by Sarah Spolaor.

There is a lot we don’t understand about the final stages of this process, though. In particular, we know that gravitational wave emission will cause the black holes to merge at the very final stages, but what other processes bring the black holes together before that time? This is known as the “final parsec problem”.  By measuring the gravitational waves produced in the final millions of years of the binary’s life, we can understand how these behemoth mergers occur, and the nature of their interactions with the host galaxy.  Indirectly, gravitational waves also provide unique insights into the subtle connections between black holes and galaxies, thus providing clues to how galaxies and supermassive black holes form and co-evolve over cosmic time.

Courtesy of

More Topics

Radio Astronomy Conceptual Illustration

Radio Astronomy

We observe with the largest telescopes in the world in order to detect electromagnetic waves with the very longest wavelengths. Radio astronomy allows us to probe energetic processes which are invisible to optical telescopes.

Pulsar Conceptual Illustration

Pulsars as Cosmic Clocks

Neutron stars are the collapsed cores of massive stars which have ended their lives in cataclysmic supernova explosions. Pulsars are rapidly rotating, highly magnetic neutron stars which emit beamed radio emission, like cosmic lighthouses. They are unique laboratories for a variety of fundamental physics experiments.

Gravitational Waves Conceptual Illustration

Low-Frequency Gravitational Waves

Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity. They are produced by accelerating masses and can be used to study objects like black hole binaries which do not emit visible light. Our experiment is sensitive to low-frequency gravitational waves with periods of years to decades.

MMA  Conceptual Illustration

Multimessenger Astrophysics

We can gain unique insights about our Universe through observations with the multiple messengers of gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves at radio to gamma-ray frequencies observed with telescopes on Earth and in space.