Scientists have discovered a pair of supermassive black holes that are doomed to merge into one enormous singularity. The findings could help astronomers understand what will happen when our own Milky Way merges with the Andromeda galaxy in 4.5 billion years.
Supermassive black holes are thought to lurk in the heart of every major galaxy, growing larger as they draw in and devour enormous quantities of dust, gas, and stars from the surrounding space environment. When wandering galaxies collide with one another, the monstrous singularities at their cores are also thrown into closer proximity.
The newly discovered black holes were found by scientists observing the aftermath of one such galactic merger that is taking place some 480 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Cancer.
NASA Black Hole Gallery
The energetic pair were spotted feeding on the maelstrom of material disturbed by the cosmic crash, and represent the closest black holes ever discovered by humanity that are locked in the act of merging.
Scientists used the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA), to peer through the bright, dusty space environment at the heart of the merger in order to identify the black holes. The chaotic duo – known collectively as UGC4211 – were then targeted by a collection of seven powerful observatories, including the orbital Hubble Space Telescope.
Data from these observations revealed that the black holes had masses of 125 and 200 million times the mass of our Sun, according to a release from the Simons Foundation in New York. These celestial heavyweights are separated by a distance of just 750 light-years, and will likely merge in a few hundred million years.
The scientists behind the paper detailing the discovery – which was published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters – used the data to estimate the amount of supermassive black holes that could be merging throughout the universe. The team estimated that a surprisingly high population likely exists, and that the extreme forces at play during the mergers are likely creating a background chorus of powerful gravitational waves.
Gravitational waves are effectively ripples in spacetime that can be created by the movements of massive bodies such as merging black holes. As a gravitational wave sweeps outward from its source, it squeezes and stretches all matter in its path, creating a disturbance that is measurable on Earth using cutting-edge laser-based instruments.
“There might be many pairs of growing supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies that we have not been able to identify so far,” said Ezequiel Treister, an astronomer at the Universidad Católica de Chile and co-author of the new paper in a new statement. “If this is the case, in the near future we will be observing frequent gravitational wave events caused by the mergers of these objects across the Universe.”
The discovery will also allow scientists to better understand what will happen to the Milky Way in the distant future. Billions of years from now our galaxy will merge with its larger spiral neighbor – the Andromeda galaxy.
“The Milky Way-Andromeda collision is in its very early stages and is predicted to occur in about 4.5 billion years,” commented senior research scientist at Eureka Scientific, and lead author of the new study, Michael Koss, in the release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory website.
“What we’ve just studied is a source in the very final stage of collision, so what we’re seeing presages that merger and also gives us insight into the connection between black holes merging and growing and eventually producing gravitational waves.”
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Anthony is a freelance contributor covering science and video gaming news for IGN. He has over eight years experience of covering breaking developments in multiple scientific fields and absolutely no time for your shenanigans. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer
Image Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); Mr. Weiss, NRAO/AUI/NSF