Three supermassive black holes on ‘collision course’ 1 billion light-years away

Three “supermassive” black holes are on a titanic collision course, astronomers have said.

The huge system of merging galaxies was spotted by researchers at Chandra X-ray Observatory and other NASA space telescopes.

Astronomers said the unusual system is known as “SDSS J084905.51+111447.2” and is located around 1 billion light-years from Earth.

"We were only looking for pairs of black holes at the time, and yet, through our selection technique, we stumbled upon this amazing system," said Ryan Pfeifle of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, the first author of a new paper in The Astrophysical Journal describing these results.

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To uncover the rare trio of black holes, researchers first combined the data of three telescopes both on the ground and in space.

First, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) telescope, which observes space from New Mexico, US, captured the black hole system in optical light.

Volunteers with the citizen-science project Galaxy Zoo then used those images to flag the system as an ongoing galaxy merger.

Next, the team examined data gathered by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft.

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WISE came across lots of infrared light emanating from the system during a phase of the merger in which more than one of the supermassive black holes was expected to be accreting material rapidly, the researchers explained.

Additional observations in X-ray and optical light confirmed what the researchers thought they had unearthed.

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory then detected strong sources of X-ray light near each of the merging galaxies' centres, indicating that lots of gas and dust were being consumed there — a sign of black-hole feeding. NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array spacecraft, or NuSTAR, also spotted evidence of gas and dust circling one of the black holes.

Additional optical-light data gathered by the SDSS and the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona further bolstered the notion that all three black holes were active.

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"Through the use of these major observatories, we have identified a new way of identifying triple supermassive black holes," Pfeifle added.

“Each telescope gives us a different clue about what's going on in these systems. We hope to extend our work to find more triples using the same technique."

The distance from each black hole to its nearest neighbour ranges from 10,000 light-years to 30,000 light-years, study team members said. But those spans will shrink because the black holes are apparently bound to merge, just as their parent galaxies are doing now.

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