Science and Engineering

University of California, Los Angeles

Andrea Ghez, Jessica Lu, Tuan Do, Aurelian Hees, Greg Martinez, Smadar Naoz
Los Angeles, CA
$1,000,000
December 2016

A New Tool for Studying the Physics and Astrophysics of Supermassive Black Holes

Supermassive black holes (SMBH) are among the least understood objects in our Universe.  The UCLA Galactic Center Group pioneered the use of stellar orbits at the center of our galaxy to prove the existence of SMBHs.  It is now possible, in principle, to take the next quantum leap in discovery with stellar orbits thanks to the rapid growth of their Galactic Center (GC) dataset, owing to a longer time baseline and recent dramatic increases in the measurement sensitivities obtained with the W. M. Keck Observatory.  However, the Galactic Center Group’s current orbit modeling methodology is limited to small datasets, simple physical models, and simplistic measurement-uncertainty assumptions.  This project will develop a new framework for modeling the orbital motion of stars at the GC.  The framework will employ modern computational and statistical methods as well as a modular plug-and-play design to incorporate (1) significantly larger and more varied data sets, (2) highly correlated measurement uncertainties, (3) prior information, and (4) more advanced physical models for the properties of the SMBH and its environs.  This project will provide the foundation for new science such as tests of General Relativity near a SMBH, a direct probe of the dark-mass distribution, and new insight into the co-evolution of central SMBHs and their host galaxy, which is a key component in cosmological models of how the Universe works.

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