When black holes collide: NASA releases 'amazing' images of galaxies merging

Mindy Sparks
November 9, 2018

Astronomers suspect that supermassive black holes lurk at the heart of every sizable galaxy, holding the galactic fiber together.

A team of astronomers claim to have found several pairs of galaxies in the final stages of merging together into single, larger galaxies.

Astrophysicists now believe there are about 10,000 black holes at the centre of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, all of which surround a supermassive black hole at its core.

One possible explanation for the apparent lack of a link between quasars and merging galaxies is that gas and dust swirling around these galaxies is likely to heavily obscure the black holes. The phenomenon lets these holes rip apart stars and devour matter, in turn releasing tremendous amount of light.

The merger was identified by Michael Koss, an astrophysicist at a scientific research company Eureka Scientific in California who sought to find images of a merger.

Dr Koss and his team of scientists first looked for hidden black holes by searching through 10 years' worth of X-ray data from NASA's Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory.

The Hubble Space Telescope and the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii were able to capture some high-res images throughout two decades.

"Deep inside the dusty, messy cores of merging galaxies are pairs of black holes feasting on material and moving closer to coalescence", says NASA on the official Hubble Space Telescope's Twitter page.

"Seeing the pairs of merging galaxy nuclei associated with these huge black holes so close together was pretty unbelievable", Koss said.

'In our study, we see two galaxy nuclei right when the images were taken.

'You can't argue with it; it's a very "clean" result, which doesn't rely on interpretation'.

When they finally do collide, they will unleash powerful energy in the form of gravitational waves - ripples in spacetime only recently discovered by scientists.

Scientists snapped pairs of black holes crashing together as their host galaxies merge in a huge celestial explosion.

"The advantage to using Swift's BAT is that it observes high-energy, "hard" X-rays", said study co-author Richard Mushotzky in the statement.

They can be produced, for instance, when black holes orbit each other or by the merging of galaxies. They drew attention to the unusual movement of gas clouds in the milky Way: by all indications, the gas velocity was affected by a massive black hole. All of those galaxies are located an average of 330 million light-years from Earth, relatively close by in cosmic terms, with many similar in size to the Milky Way.

Mr Koss explained: "People had conducted studies to look for these close interacting black holes before, but what really enabled this particular study were the X-rays that can break through the cocoon of dust".

He said: "Galactic mergers might be a key way of growing black holes".

According to the University of Maryland, the images also offer a preview of a likely scenario in a few billion years, when our Milky Way galaxy merges with the neighbouring Andromeda galaxy.

There is still much to learn about black hole mergers, though.

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