Two Supermassive Black Holes Discovered in Binary Orbit

If you ask someone what the craziest, most powerful, energetic, and enigmatic thing in the universe is, chances are they will say a black hole.  After all, we know so little about them, we have never directly seen one, and we can see their influence across space and time.  But there is apparently another notch on the crazy powerful cosmic object front.  Like turning the volume knob to eleven, a binary system of supermassive black holes has been discovered in a nearby quasar.

IMAGE: OU ASTROPHYSICIST AND HIS CHINESE COLLABORATOR USED OBSERVATIONS FROM NASA’S HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE TO FIND TWO SUPERMASSIVE BLACK HOLES IN MARKARIAN 231 CREDIT: SPACE TELESCOPE SCIENCE INSTITUTE, BALTIMORE, MARYLAND

A quasar is an incredibly bright core of a distant galaxy, shining brighter than the entire galaxy in which it resides, allowing astronomers to observe its existence at incredibly vast distances across the universe.  The cause for a quasar’s incredible brightness is thought to be a supermassive black hole that is rapidly sucking up surrounding gas and dust, causing it to heat up to incredible temperatures and radiate huge amounts of energy across the electromagnetic spectrum.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), astronomers from the University of Oklahoma looked at ultraviolet radiation from the centre of the galaxy Markarian 231, which is the closest quasar to Earth.  They modeled the spectrum for a binary system of black holes and found that it matched the spectrum they observed in the galaxy.

This discovery could provide a model for the formation of quasars and other active galactic nuclei.  The mergers of massive galaxies would eventually result in two massive central black holes orbiting one another and slowly merging to form a bigger black hole and an active galactic nucleus.

Space is crazy.

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