Distant Black Holes Circling Each Other
December 4, 2013

Distant Black Hole Duo Locked In A Circling Dance

[ Watch the Video: Black Hole Duo In A Deadly Dance ]

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

NASA astronomers have found evidence of two supermassive black holes at the center of a remote galaxy that are locked in a fierce, circling dance, according to an upcoming report in the Astrophysical Journal.

Images created with the use of NASA’s , Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), show the black holes circling each other and a strange looking particle jet said to be the result of one black hole affecting the jet of the other.

"We think the jet of one black hole is being wiggled by the other, like a dance with ribbons," said study author Chao-Wei Tsai of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "If so, it is likely the two black holes are fairly close and gravitationally entwined."

The new study is based on previously released all-sky WISE data. Scientists combed through images of millions of active supermassive black holes found throughout our sky before noticing an oddball known as WISE J233237.05-505643.5.

"At first we thought this galaxy's unusual properties seen by WISE might mean it was forming new stars at a furious rate," said study author Peter Eisenhardt, WISE project manager at JPL. "But on closer inspection, it looks more like the death spiral of merging giant black holes."

Like many intimate relationships, the dance between these black holes probably started out slowly, with the objects beginning to circle each other about a few thousand light-years apart, NASA scientists said. As the black holes continued to circle toward each other, they become closer and eventually were separated by just a few light-years.

These black hole binaries have been difficult for astronomers to detect as they are often too small to be sensed by even the more powerful telescopes. Located 3.8 billion light-years from Earth, the newly detected WISE J233237.05-505643.5 is an unusually distant potential candidate for being categorized as a black hole binary.

NASA said images taken with the Australian Telescope Compact Array were important in identifying the dual nature of WISE J233237.05-505643.5. Supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies usually fire out straight jets, but the WISE J233237.05-505643.5 jet showed a bizarre zigzag pattern. The scientists said this effect could be due to a second massive black hole changing the shape of the first black hole's jet.

Additional evidence for a second black hole came from the Gemini South telescope in Chile, which showed similar abnormalities in the material surrounding the first black hole. These signs indicate a close-knit set of circling black holes, the NASA astronomers said.

"We note some caution in interpreting this mysterious system," said study author Daniel Stern, an astrophysicist at JPL. "There are several extremely unusual properties to this system, from the multiple radio jets to the Gemini data, which indicate a highly perturbed disk of accreting material around the black hole, or holes.”

“Two merging black holes, which should be a common event in the universe, would appear to be simplest explanation to explain all the current observations,” Stern added.