Astronomers Detects 3 Giant Black Holes That Are on a Collision Course

The black holes were detected by several observatories, including 3 NASA telescopes.

An enormous event has been caught by several observatories, including 3 NASA space telescopes — 3 gigantic black holes are moving in a collision course towards each other.

The astronomers behind the discovery were looking for pairs of black holes when they came across this incredible system.


Triplet black holes

The triple black hole system is called SDSS J084905.51+111447.2 (SDSS J0849+1114 for short) and is located a billion light-years away from Earth.

Triplet black holes are a rare discovery and one that usually takes a system of observatories to discover. In this case, researchers combined data from telescopes both on Earth and in space.

"We were only looking for pairs of black holes at the time, and yet, through our selection technique, we stumbled upon this amazing system," says Ryan Pfeifle of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, the first author of a new paper in The Astrophysical Journal describing these results.

"This is the strongest evidence yet found for such a triple system of actively feeding supermassive black holes," Pfeifle explained in a NASA press release.

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) telescope, NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission, Chandra X-ray, and the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) were amongst the telescopes used.

Astronomers Detects 3 Giant Black Holes That Are on a Collision Course
Source: X-ray: NASA/CXC/George Mason Univ./R. Pfeifle et al.; Optical: SDSS & NASA/STScI

These provided a combination of X-ray and optical images that were assessed to detect the space giants moving towards each other.

A new detection method

"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," said Pfeifle.

"We hope to extend our work to find more triples using the same technique."

"Dual and triple black holes are exceedingly rare," said co-author Shobita Satyapal, also of George Mason, "but such systems are actually a natural consequence of galaxy mergers, which we think is how galaxies grow and evolve."

As the researchers' paper points out, three supermassive black holes moving together, and merging exhibit different behavior than that which would be seen in just a pair of black holes. The speed at which they merge is much faster due to the increased pull of enormous amounts of gravity.

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