Universe-shaking black-hole collision coming sooner than expected?

Two distant black holes will smash into each other, releasing more energy than 100 quintillion Earths full of TNT, and new research has just moved up the timeline for the explosion.

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Eric Mack
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Artist's conception of gravitational waves NASA

Earlier this year, we reported on an inevitable slow-motion collision of two distant black holes that could end in an epic, galaxy-destroying explosion violent enough to send ripples through the space-time fabric of the universe. Now, new research indicates those cosmic fireworks could be visible much sooner than previously expected.

The black holes we're dealing with are in the Virgo constellation billions of light-years away from Earth, so there's little need to worry that we'll be hit by any galactic shrapnel. Between here and there are billions of galaxies floating around the universe, so it's really not so shocking that two of them might drift up into each other's business every now and then.

Keep in mind that it's believed most galaxies have powerful black holes at their center, slowly swallowing up everything that comes within their considerable grasp. These two galaxies and their central black holes are now being observed spiraling around each other at the relatively small distance of just one light-week. According to a release from Columbia University, the closest previously confirmed black hole pair is 20 light years apart.

This is what happens when you fall into a black hole (pictures)

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Astronomers at Columbia ran some calculations on the pair and predict that a very buzzworthy mashup will occur in just 100,000 years, significantly sooner than the million or so years from now previously predicted for the crash.

"This is the closest we've come to observing two black holes on their way to a massive collision," said Columbia's Zoltan Haiman, senior author of a study published in the journal Nature. "Watching this process reach its culmination can tell us whether black holes and galaxies grow at the same rate, and ultimately test a fundamental property of space-time: its ability to carry vibrations called gravitational waves, produced in the last, most violent, stage of the merger."

Two black holes are on a collision course in Virgo. P. Marenfeld/NOAO/AURA/NSF

That most violent stage of the merger he mentions could release the energy equivalent of 100 million supernova explosions. To attempt to put that into some perspective, imagine lighting a pile of TNT that has roughly the mass of 100 quintillion planet Earths (that's 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 Earths) and you would theoretically release the same amount of energy. The gravitational waves Haiman mentions can be thought of as similar to shock waves from an explosion that actually sends ripples through the space-time fabric of the universe itself.

Studying these waves is of particular interest to scientists. Just last year, it's believed some researchers may have found evidence for the gravitational waves that can be traced back to the original cosmic explosion, the Big Bang.

"The detection of gravitational waves lets us probe the secrets of gravity and test Einstein's theory in the most extreme environment in our universe -- black holes," said the study's lead author, Daniel D'Orazio. "Getting there is a holy grail of our field."

While it seems pretty unlikely that any contemporary scientists will be around to watch the explosion of the two colliding black holes in Virgo, the Columbia team says another benefit of their research is improving the means of finding other black-hole pairs, making them optimistic that astronomers could finally get to observe such a gargantuan collision in the next decade.

We're going to need to come up with a phrase to describe these monster explosions, since "Big Bang" is already taken. "Not-quite-so-Big-Bang?" Nah. We might need to crowdsource this one. Leave us your suggestions in the comments or tweet them @crave.