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Astronomers have discovered the closest supermassive black hole duo to Earth

The two objects are significantly closer together than any other pair of supermassive black holes previously observed, and will eventually merge into one huge black hole.

ESO astronomers have revealed the closest pair of supermassive black holes to Earth ever observed.
ESO astronomers have revealed the closest pair of supermassive black holes to Earth ever observed.

The supermassive black hole pair is located in the galaxy NGC 7727 in the constellation Aquarius, approximately 89 million light-years from Earth.

Although this appears to be a great distance, it eclipses the previous record of 470 million light-years, bringing the newly discovered supermassive black hole pair the closest to us yet.

Supermassive black holes are found at the centers of massive galaxies, and when two of these galaxies merge, the black holes are forced to collide.

The duo in NGC 7727 shattered the previous record for the lowest spacing between two supermassive black holes, as they are only 1600 light-years apart in the sky.

“This is the first time we have discovered two supermassive black holes this close together, less than half the distance between the previous record holder,” says Karina Voggel, an astronomer at France’s Strasbourg Observatory and lead author of the study published online today in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

“The modest separation and velocity of the two black holes indicate they will merge into a single monster black hole within the next 250 million years,” says co-author Holger Baumgardt, an Australian professor at the University of Queensland. The merging of such black holes may explain how the Universe’s most colossal black holes form.

Voggel and her colleagues determined the masses of the two objects by observing how the black holes’ gravitational pull affects the motion of the stars in their vicinity. The larger black hole, located directly at the center of NGC 7727, has a mass nearly 154 million times that of the Sun, while its companion has a mass of 6.3 million solar masses.

Astronomers suspected the galaxy included two black holes but were unable to prove their presence until now due to the absence of substantial amounts of high-energy radiation emanating from their near surrounds.

“Our discovery means that there may be many more of these remnants of galaxy mergers out there, and they may contain more hidden huge black holes,” Voggel says. “It has the potential to double the number of known supermassive black holes in the local Universe by 30%.”

“This discovery of a pair of supermassive black holes is just the beginning,” explains co-author Steffen Mieske, an astronomer at ESO’s Paranal Science Operations in Chile. “With the HARMONI instrument on the ELT, we will be able to detect these events far further than is currently possible. ESO’s ELT will be critical in gaining a better understanding of these objects.”

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