Two Supermassive Black Holes Are On Course for a Violent Collision

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Chris Young

A team of astronomers spotted two supermassive black holes on a collision course with each other in the nearby galaxy NGC 7727, a report from Gizmodo reveals.

The two space giants are closer to each other than any other pair of black holes ever observed and they are also the closest pair of supermassive black holes to Earth.

The two black holes are located 89 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Aquarius and one of them is a staggering 6.3 million times the mass of the Sun, while the other is 154 million times our Sun's mass. The previous record-holder for the closest pair of supermassive black holes was located 470 million light-years away.

The team of astronomers will publish its findings in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. They were able to determine the mass of the black holes thanks to a novel approach enabled by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (ESO's VLT). Using the VLT, the astronomers directly observed the gravitational influence of the two black holes on their surrounding stars, allowing them to infer their masses.

Uncovering the mysteries of supermassive black holes

The team of astronomers believes that their research provides a window into galaxy mergers and that it will help the scientific community uncover more hidden black holes throughout the universe. "Our finding implies that there might be many more of these relics of galaxy mergers out there and they may contain many hidden massive black holes that still wait to be found," lead study author Karina Voggel said in a press release"It could increase the total number of supermassive black holes known in the local Universe by 30 percent."

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Two Supermassive Black Holes Are On Course for a Violent Collision
Images of NGC 7727 and the two galactic nuclei where the supermassive black holes are located. Source: Durham University/CASU/WFAU

The search for supermassive black holes will be greatly boosted with ESO's Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), located in Chile's Atacama Desert, which is expected to start operating before 2030. "This detection of a supermassive black hole pair is just the beginning," said co-author Steffen Mieske. "With the HARMONI instrument on the ELT, we will be able to make detections like this considerably further than currently possible. ESO's ELT will be integral to understanding these objects."

Another high-profile telescope, NASA's James Webb Observatory is expected to launch into space this month following a series of delays. That telescope will help to shed new light on the colossal space objects by conducting observations that will help uncover, as an example, whether supermassive black holes originated in primordial mega-stars.

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