A rare trio of supermassive black holes spotted as three galaxies collide

A rare trio of supermassive black holes spotted as three galaxies collide
Three supermassive black holes spotted heading towards to each other as three galaxies mergeNASA

  • A new study shares the discovery of three supermassive black holes on a feeding frenzy, as they edge closer together.
  • The unusual system of supermassive black holes was spotted by multiple observatories across the world.
  • The discovery offers a new way to study how galaxies merge and grow as well as a new method to spot trios of supermassive black holes in other parts of the universe.
Finding a singular supermassive black hole is a feat but finding three galaxies are colliding is especially rare.

The unusual system, SDSS J0849+1114, was spotted by several observatories around the world, according to National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The collective images of the supermassive black holes show that more than one of them is on a feeding frenzy.

"This is the strongest evidence yet found for such a triple system of actively feeding supermassive black holes," said Ryan Pfeifle, the lead author of the study published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Located a billion light years away from Earth, the collision doesn't pose any threat to the planet.

Tearing through the veil

It's not that other trios of supermassive black holes don't exist but it's difficult for astronomers to spot them since they are likely to be hidden by gas and dust that they feed on.

The density of the material would block out most of the light.

In fact, computer simulations by NASA show that 16% of double supermassive black holes in colliding galaxies interacted with a third supermassive black hole, along the way.

This particular trio of supermassive black holes was first spotted by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) telescope. Scientists from the Galaxy Zoo project then tagged it as a system of colliding galaxies.

The discovery was confirmed by NASA's Wide-field Survey Explorer (WISE), the Chandra telescope and the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT).

Since these three instruments use infrared and infrared spectra to capture images, it easier for them to pierce through the material in comparison to using optical light.

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

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. But, they are still a 'natural consequence' of galaxy mergers, according to NASA.

Theory of the 'final parsec problem' states that the existence of third supermassive black hole can accelerate the merging of the other two supermassive black holes.

Knowing how to spot triple supermassive black holes could provide clues into how galaxies merge and grow. Especially, since the merger of supermassive black holes produce ripples in space called gravitational waves.

These waves carry information about their origins and aren't affected by alterations as they travel through intergalactic space.

See also:
Supermassive black hole is eating meals worth four Moons thrice a day

Supermassive black holes grew from mysterious 'seeds' that are yet to be found

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