Astronomers discover two supermassive black holes on a collision course

Researchers found a pair of black holes embedded within two galaxies that merged when the universe was just 3 billion years old.

To make the finding, which was published in the specialized journal Nature, the astronomers, under the tutelage of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UI-UC), used a set of space and ground-based telescopes. “The confirmation process was not easy and we needed an array of telescopes covering the spectrum from X-rays to radio [radio waves] to finally confirm that this system is indeed a pair of quasars, rather than, say, two images of a gravitationally lensed quasar,” explained one of the study leaders, Yue Shen.

According to the researchers, these quasars, the scientific name for very bright and very heavy galaxies extremely distant in our universe, are 10,000 light-years apart. The experts further pointed out that these black holes were in a feeding “feast”, devouring gas and dust, and that they were on the brink of a colossal collision. “We don’t see many double quasars at this early time in the universe. And that’s why this discovery is so exciting,” said study lead author Yu-Ching Chen of UI-UC. “Knowing the parent population of black holes will eventually tell us about the appearance of supermassive black holes in the early universe and how frequent such mergers might be,” Chen explained. “We are beginning to reveal this tip of the iceberg of the population of early binary quasars,” added co-author Xin Liu, also from UI-UC. “This is the uniqueness of this study. It actually tells us that this population exists, and we now have a method to identify double quasars that are separated by less than the size of a single galaxy,” he noted.