Astronomers detect merging supermassive black holes

Next generation of telescopes could find thousands of similar phenomena within several years.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Apr 20, 2015
Flashes of light detected from a quasar in deep space by a team of astronomers at the University of Maryland via thePan-STARRS1 Medium Deep Survey telescope in Hawaii are believed to be evidence of an ongoing merger between two supermassive black holes.

The black holes are located in the center of two galaxies in the process of merging and will likely end up closely orbiting each other as a binary system, researchers said.

Supermassive black holes that actively suck in surrounding matter heat and accelerate that matter intensely, creating extremely powerful energy sources known as quasars, or active galactic nucleii.

The flashes of light were seen in pulses, leading the researchers to believe they found a binary black hole system.

The emissions of single quasars are mostly irregular and arrhythmic. In contrast, the light flashes observed brightened and dimmed cyclically with noteworthy precision, strongly suggesting their source is a binary.

Flashes of light fromthe quasar, which has a central black hole ten billion times as massive as our Sun and is officially named PSO J334.2028+01.4075, are periodic, repeating every 542 days.

"We believe we have observed two supermassive black holes in closer proximity than ever before," saidprofessor Suvi Gezari, a member of the research team.

A binary black hole system consumes matter in a cyclical pattern, which explains the periodic brightening and dimming.

In his general theory of relativity, Albert Einstein predicted that two black holes orbiting each other so closely could emit gravitational waves, Gezari noted.

Research team member and astronomy studentTingting Liu said the discovery of a binary supermassive black hole system with such a close orbital separation will shed light on the ultimate results of mergers between such objects.

The team's findings have been published in the journalAstrophysical Journal Letters.



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