Three black holes on a collision course

Pablo Tucker
September 29, 2019

A new study shares the discovery of three supermassive black holes on a feeding frenzy, as they edge closer together. Chandra and NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) additionally discovered proof for a lot of gas and dust around one of the black holes, typical for a merging black hole system.

"It would really open up our understanding of how galaxy mergers affect supermassive black holes and vice versa", study author Ryan Pfeifle, Ph.D student at George Mason University, told Gizmodo. "This is the strongest evidence yet found for such a triple system of actively feeding supermassive black holes". First, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) telescope, which scans large swaths of the sky in optical light from New Mexico, imaged SDSS J0849+1114. The system is actually a collision between galaxies as identified by Galaxy Zoo, a crowdsourced project that enlists the help of normal people to morphologically classify galaxies.

The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer from NASA then had its role in the study, too, with the infrared light, which came from the black holes. Then to follow up further, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory showed bright light points at the centre of each of the three colliding galaxies, right where astronomers expect the black holes to reside.

Black holes are thought to exist at the center of most galaxies, and supermassive black holes are the largest and most powerful variety.


Finding a singular supermassive black hole is a feat but finding three galaxies are colliding is especially rare.

"They are commonly used to identify actively accreting supermassive black holes and can reflect the impact they have on the galaxies they inhabit". "Each telescope offers us a a range of clue about what's going down on in these programs", acknowledged Ryan Pfeifle. "We hope to extend our work to find more triples using the same technique". This can be a solution to the theoretical puzzle, called the "final parsec problem", in which two supermassive black holes can approach each other on distance of several light years, but it will take some extra attraction inside to merge because of the excess energy that they carry in their orbits. Love us on Fb or note us on Twitter and Instagram for most up-to-date facts and dwell facts updates.

One of these sources, called SDSS J0849+1114, seemed to have all the hallmarks of a trio of active galactic nuclei at the centre of merging galaxies.

Gravitational waves The significance of the discovery is that three supermassive black holes behave very differently from single or dual systems of supermassive black holes.


Scientists are now hunting for evidence of ripples in spacetime created by supermassive black hole binaries via pulsar timing arrays, experiments that measure the changes to the rate at which dense, rotating neutron stars pulse.

Computer simulations have shown that 16% of pairs of supermassive black holes in colliding galaxies will have interacted with a third supermassive black hole before they merge. The merger will also create gravitational waves - ripples in space-time that can be detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and Virgo gravitational-wave detector.

The paper describing these results appears in The Astrophysical Journal. WISE, LBT and Chandra overcome this issue as they rely on infrared and x-ray radiation data.


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