Astronomers working with data from the space-based Chandra X-ray Observatory said this week (September 25, 2019) that they’ve located three supermassive black holes on a collision course. The system where this triple black hole merger is happening is called SDSS J0849+1114. It’s located about a billion light years from Earth. Telescopes on the ground and in space – including Chandra, Hubble, WISE and NuSTAR – captured the scene, which scientists are calling:
… the best evidence yet for a trio of giant black holes.
So we haven’t seen many systems like this so far. And yet, astronomers believe, triplet collisions like this one play a critical role in how the biggest black holes grow over time. Ryan Pfeifle of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia is first author of a new paper in the peer-reviewed Astrophysical Journal, which describes these results (preprint here). He said:
We were only looking for pairs of black holes at the time, and yet, through our selection technique, we stumbled upon this amazing system. This is the strongest evidence yet found for such a triple system of actively feeding supermassive black holes.
These scientists’ statement described their process:
To uncover this rare black hole trifecta, researchers needed to combine data from telescopes both on the ground and in space. First, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope, which scans large swaths of the sky in optical light from New Mexico, imaged SDSS J0849+1114. With the help of citizen scientists participating in a project called Galaxy Zoo, it was then tagged as a system of colliding galaxies.
Then, data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission revealed that the system was glowing intensely in infrared light during a phase in the galaxy merger when more than one of the black holes is expected to be feeding rapidly. To follow up on these clues, astronomers then turned to Chandra and the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona.
The Chandra data revealed X-ray sources — a telltale sign of material being consumed by the black holes — at the bright centers of each galaxy in the merger, exactly where scientists expect supermassive black holes to reside. Chandra and NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) also found evidence for large amounts of gas and dust around one of the black holes, typical for a merging black hole system.
Co-author Christina Manzano-King of University of California, Riverside said:
Optical spectra contain a wealth of information about a galaxy. They are commonly used to identify actively accreting supermassive black holes and can reflect the impact they have on the galaxies they inhabit.
These astronomers said one reason it’s difficult to find a triplet of supermassive black holes is that the holes are likely to be shrouded in gas and dust, blocking much of their light. The infrared images from WISE, the infrared spectra from LBT and the X-ray images from Chandra bypass this issue, they said, because infrared and X-ray light pierce clouds of gas much more easily than optical light. Pfeifle explained:
Through the use of these major observatories, we have identified a new way of identifying triple supermassive black holes. 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.
Another co-author on the new paper, Shobita Satyapal, also of George Mason, explained why this system is exciting to scientists:
Dual and triple black holes are exceedingly rare, but such systems are actually a natural consequence of galaxy mergers, which we think is how galaxies grow and evolve.
As you might expect, these scientists said, three supermassive black holes merging behave differently than just a pair:
When there are three such black holes interacting, a pair should merge into a larger black hole much faster than if the two were alone. This may be a solution to a theoretical conundrum called the ‘final parsec problem,’ in which two supermassive black holes can approach to within a few light-years of each other, but would need some extra pull inwards to merge because of the excess energy they carry in their orbits. The influence of a third black hole, as in SDSS J0849+1114, could finally bring them together.
Computer simulations have shown that 16% of pairs of supermassive black holes in colliding galaxies will have interacted with a third supermassive black hole before they merge. Such mergers will produce ripples through spacetime called gravitational waves. These waves will have lower frequencies than the National Science Foundation’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and European Virgo gravitational-wave detector can detect. However, they may be detectable with radio observations of pulsars, as well as future space observatories, such as the European Space Agency’s Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), which will detect black holes up to one million solar masses.
Bottom line: Astronomers have discovered a system of 3 galaxies – called SDSS J0849+1114 – all orbiting each other a billion light years from Earth. Each galaxy contains a supermassive black hole, which are circling each other, about to collide.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.