Scientist Find Treasure Trove of Giant Black Hole Pairs

In February 2016, LIGO detected gravity waves for the first time. As this artist's illustration depicts, the gravitational waves were created by merging black holes. The third detection just announced was also created when two black holes merged. Credit: LIGO/A. Simonnet.

For decades, astronomers have known that Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) reside at the center of most massive galaxies. These black holes, which range from being hundreds of thousands to billions of Solar masses, exert a powerful influence on surrounding matter and are believed to be the cause of Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN). For as long as astronomers have known about them, they have sought to understand how SMBHs form and evolve.

In two recently published studies, two international teams of researchers report on the discovery of five newly-discovered black hole pairs at the centers of distant galaxies. This discovery could help astronomers shed new light on how SMBHs form and grow over time, not to mention how black hole mergers produce the strongest gravitational waves in the Universe.

The first four dual black hole candidates were reported in a study titled “Buried AGNs in Advanced Mergers: Mid-Infrared Color Selection as a Dual AGN Finder“, which was led by Shobita Satyapal, a professor of astrophysics at George Mason University. This study was accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal and recently appeared online.

Optical and x-ray data on two of the new black hole pairs discovered. Credit: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Victoria/S.Ellison et al./George Mason Univ./S.Satyapal et al./SDSS

The second study, which reported the fifth dual black hole candidate, was led by Sarah Ellison – an astrophysics professor at the University of Victoria. It was recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society under the title “Discovery of a Dual Active Galactic Nucleus with ~8 kpc Separation. The discovery of these five black hole pairs was very fortuitous, given that pairs are a very rare find.

As Shobita Satyapal explained in a Chandra press statement:

“Astronomers find single supermassive black holes all over the universe. But even though we’ve predicted they grow rapidly when they are interacting, growing dual supermassive black holes have been difficult to find.

The black hole pairs were discovered by combining data from a number of different ground-based and space-based instruments. This included optical data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and the ground-based Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Arizona with near-infrared data from the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and x-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

For the sake of their studies, Satyapal, Ellison, and their respective teams sought to detect dual AGNs, which are believed to be a consequence of galactic mergers. They began by consulting optical data from the SDSS to identify galaxies that appeared to be in the process of merging. Data from the all-sky WISE survey was then used to identify those galaxies that displayed the most powerful AGNs.

Illustration of a pair of black holes. Credit: NASA/CXC/A.Hobart

They then consulted data from the Chandra’s Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS) and the LBT to identify seven galaxies that appeared to be in an advanced stage of merger. The study led by Ellison also relied on optical data provided by the Mapping Nearby Galaxies at Apache Point Observatory (MaNGA) survey to pinpoint one of the new black hole pairs.

From the combined data, they found that five out of the seven merging galaxies hosted possible dual AGNs, which were separated by less than 10 kiloparsecs (over 30,000 light years). This was evidenced by the infrared data provided by WISE, which was consistent with what is predicated of rapidly growing supermassive black holes.

In addition, the Chandra data showed closely-separated pairs of x-ray sources, which is also consistent with black holes that have matter slowly being accreted onto them. This infrared and x-ray data also suggested that the supermassive black holes are buried in large amounts of dust and gas. As Ellison indicated, these findings were the result of painstaking work that consisted of sorting through multiple wavelengths of data:

“Our work shows that combining the infrared selection with X-ray follow-up is a very effective way to find these black hole pairs. X-rays and infrared radiation are able to penetrate the obscuring clouds of gas and dust surrounding these black hole pairs, and Chandra’s sharp vision is needed to separate them”.

Artist’s impression of binary black hole system in the process of merging. Credit: Bohn et al.

Before this study, less than ten pairs of growing black holes had been confirmed based on X-ray studies, and these were mostly by chance. This latest work, which detected five black hole pairs using combined data, was therefore both fortunate and significant. Aside from bolstering the hypothesis that supermassive black holes form from the merger of smaller black holes, these studies also have serious implications for gravitational wave research.

“It is important to understand how common supermassive black hole pairs are, to help in predicting the signals for gravitational wave observatories,” said Satyapa. “With experiments already in place and future ones coming online, this is an exciting time to be researching merging black holes. We are in the early stages of a new era in exploring the universe.”

Since 2016, a total of four instances of gravitational waves have been detected by instruments like the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the VIRGO Observatory. However, these detections were the result of black hole mergers where the black holes were all smaller and less massive  – between eight and 36 Solar masses.

Supermassive Black Holes, on the other hand, are much more massive and will likely produce a much larger gravitational wave signature as they continue to draw closer together. And in a few hundred million years, when these pairs eventually do merge, the resulting energy produced by mass being converted into gravitational waves will be incredible.

Artist’s conception of two merging black holes, similar to those detected by LIGO on January 4th, 2017. Credit: LIGO/Caltech

At present, detectors like LIGO and Virgo are not able to detect the gravitational waves created by Supermassive Black Hole pairs. This work is being done by arrays like the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), which relies on high-precision millisecond pulsars to measure the influence of gravitational waves on space-time.

The proposed Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), which will be the first dedicated space-based gravitational wave detector, is also expected to help in the search. In the meantime, gravitational wave research has already benefited immensely from collaborative efforts like the one that exists between Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo.

In the future, scientists also anticipate that they will be able to study the interiors of supernovae through gravitational wave research. This is likely to reveal a great deal about the mechanisms behind black hole formation. Between all of these ongoing efforts and future developments, we can expect to “hear” a great deal more of the Universe and the most powerful forces at work within it.

Be sure to check out this animation that shows what the eventual merger of two of these black hole pairs will look like, courtesy of the Chandra X-ray Observatory:

Further Reading: Chandra HarvardarXiv, MNRAS

When do Black Holes Become Active? The Case of the Strangely-Shaped Galaxy Mrk 273

The Hubble image above shows a strange galaxy, known as Mrk 273.  The odd shape – including the infrared bright center and the long tail extending into space for 130 thousand light-years – is strongly indicative of a merger between galaxies.

Near-infrared observations have revealed a nucleus with multiple components, but for years the details of such a sight have remained obscured by dust. With further data from the Keck Telescope, based in Hawaii, astronomers have verified that this object is the result of a merger between galaxies, with the infrared bright center consisting of two active galactic nuclei – intensely luminous cores powered by supermassive black holes.

At the center of every single galaxy is a supermassive black hole. While the name sounds exciting, our supermassive black hole, Sgr A* is pretty quiescent.  But at the center of every early galaxy looms the opposite: an active galactic nuclei (AGN for short). There are plenty of AGN in the nearby Universe as well, but the question stands: how and when do these black holes become active?

In order to find the answer astronomers are looking at merging galaxies. When two galaxies collide, the supermassive black holes fall toward the center of the merged galaxy, resulting in a binary black hole system. At this stage they remain quiescent black holes, but are likely to become active soon.

“The accretion of material onto a quiescent black hole at the center of a galaxy will enable it to grow in size, leading to the event where the nucleus is “turned on” and becomes active,” Dr. Vivian U, lead author on the study, told Universe Today. “Since galaxy interaction provides means for gaseous material in the progenitor galaxies to lose angular momentum and funnels toward the center of the system, it is thought to play a role in triggering AGN.  However, it has been difficult to pinpoint exactly how and when in a merging system this triggering occurs.”

While it has been known that an AGN can “turn on” before the final coalescence of the two black holes, it is unknown as to when this will happen. Quite a few systems do not host dual AGN.  For those that do, we do not know whether synchronous ignition occurs or not.

Mrk 273 provides a powerful example to study. The team used near-infrared instruments on the Keck Telescope in order to probe past the dust.  Adaptive optics also removed the blurring affects caused by the Earth’s atmosphere, allowing for a much cleaner image – matching the Hubble Space Telescope, from the ground.

“The punch line is that Mrk 273, an advanced late-stage galaxy merger system, hosts two nuclei from the progenitor galaxies that have yet to fully coalesce,” explains Dr. U. The presence of two supermassive black holes can be easily discerned from the rapidly rotating gas disks that surround the two nuclei.

“Both nuclei have already been turned on as evidenced by collimated outflows (a typical AGN signature) that we observe” Dr. U told me. Such a high amount of energy released from both supermassive black holes suggests that Mrk 273 is a dual AGN system. These exciting results mark a crucial step in understanding how galaxy mergers may “turn on” a supermassive black hole.

The team has collected near-infrared data for a large sample of galaxy mergers at different merging states.  With the new data set, Dr. U aims “to understand how the nature of the nuclear star formation and AGN activity may change as a galaxy system progresses through the interaction.”

The results will be published in the Astrophysical Journal (preprint available here).

 

Nearby Galaxy Has Two Monster Black Holes

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Why does this galaxy appear to be smiling? The answer might be because it has been holding a secret that astrophysicists have only now just uncovered: there are two — count ‘em – two gigantic black holes inside this nearby galaxy, named Markarian 739 (or NGC 3758), and both are very active. While massive black holes are common, only about one percent of them are considered as active and powerful – called active galactic nuclei (AGN). Binary AGN are rarer still: Markarian 739 is only the second identified within half a billion light-years from Earth.

Markarian 739 is actually a pair of merging galaxies. For decades, astronomers have known that the eastern nucleus of Markarian 739 contains a black hole that is actively accreting matter and generating an exceptional amount of energy. Now, data from the Swift satellite along with the Chandra X-ray Observatory Swift has revealed an AGN in the western half as well. This makes the galaxy one of the nearest and clearest cases of a binary AGN.

The galaxy is 425 million light-years away from Earth.

How did the second AGN remain hidden for so long? “Markarian 739 West shows no evidence of being an AGN in visible, ultraviolet and radio observations,” said Sylvain Veilleux, a professor of astronomy at University of Maryland in College Park , and a coauthor of a new paper published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. “This highlights the critical importance of high-resolution observations at high X-ray energies in locating binary AGN.”

Since 2004, the Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) aboard Swift has been mapping high-energy X-ray sources all around the sky. The survey is sensitive to AGN up to 650 million light-years away and has uncovered dozens of previously unrecognized systems.

Michael Koss, the lead author of this study, from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and UMCP, did follow-up studies of the BAT mapping and he and his colleagues published a paper in 2010 that revealed that about a quarter of the Swift BAT AGN were either interacting or in close pairs, with perhaps 60 percent of them poised to merge in another billion years.

“If two galaxies collide and each possesses a supermassive black hole, there should be times when both black holes switch on as AGN,” said coauthor Richard Mushotzky, professor of astronomy at UMCP. “We weren’t seeing many double AGN, so we turned to Chandra for help.”

Swift’s BAT instrument is scanning one-tenth of the sky at any given moment, its X-ray survey growing more sensitive every year as its exposure increases. Where Swift’s BAT provided a wide-angle view, the X-ray telescope aboard the Chandra X-ray Observatory acted like a zoom lens and resolved details a hundred times smaller.

The distance separating the two black holes is about 11,000 light-years , or about a third of the distance separating the solar system from the center of our own galaxy. The dual AGN of Markarian 739 is the second-closest known, both in terms of distance from one another and distance from Earth. However, another galaxy known as NGC 6240 holds both records.

Source: Swift Telescope webpage

You can follow Universe Today senior editor Nancy Atkinson on Twitter: @Nancy_A. Follow Universe Today for the latest space and astronomy news on Twitter @universetoday and on Facebook.