Did NASA’s WISE spot a rare pair of giant black hole binaries?

This simulation shows two supermassive black holes creating intense gravity waves as they 'do-si-do' around each …Researchers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have discovered what could be a pair of supermassive black holes locked in a 'dance of doom' at the heart of a distant galaxy.

Supermassive black holes are thought to lurk at the core of all large galaxies, including our own. These monsters likely started out as 'ordinary' black holes, created in the death of ancient, massive stars that collapsed upon themselves. However, they steadily grew as they consumed matter and even other black holes until they were billions of times more massive than our sun. Some of these supermassive black holes are quiet, like Sagittarius A* at the centre of our galaxy. Many are very active, consuming matter at an incredible rate and spewing out intense beams of energy in the process.

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For around two years, NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), took a survey of the entire sky from orbit, and captured millions of images of galaxies and their active supermassive black holes. Astronomers from JPL pored through these numerous images until one particular one — labeled 'WISE J233237.05-505643.5' — stood out from the others. This particular galaxy showed a strange 'double-peaked' signature that told them something strange was going on at its core.

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

Astronomers have already seen cases of black holes in the early stages of their 'death spiral', but this would appear to be the newest case of a much more rare find — a pair of close 'black hole binaries'. When these black holes draw closer to each other, like in the video below, their combined forces cause extreme disturbances in the fabric of spacetime, called gravitational waves. When they finally meet and merge, they emit immense blasts of energy that can be seen from across the universe.

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Followup observations of this galaxy by the Australia Telescope Compact Array and the Gemini South telescope in Chile support the findings of the researchers, but they are still cautious about pinning this down as a definite black hole pair. More research is definitely needed to investigate this unusual finding, however, as study co-author Daniel Stern said in the JPL news release: "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."

The research will appear in the December 10th issue of Astrophysical Journal, but it can be seen online now, for free, at arxiv.org/abs/1310.2257.


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