Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Trio of Supermassive Black Holes Could Be Rippling Fabric of Space- Time

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Trio of Supermassive Black Holes Could Be Rippling Fabric of Space- Time

Article excerpt

Researchers have uncovered a rarely seen gathering of three supermassive black holes in a pair of merging galaxies more than 4 billion light-years away.

The two elliptical galaxies are overlapping sufficiently that a supermassive black hole in one but 24,000 light-years from a close pair in the center of the second galaxy. For comparison, that's less than half way to the center of the Milky Way.

Of special interest is the close pair, which orbit each other at a distance of only about 450 light-years. Einstein's theory of general relativity predicts that their orbital minuet should literally make waves in the fabric of space-time, a phenomenon that researchers are trying hard to detect.

Moreover, the motions of two or three co-orbiting supermassive black holes is akin to that of a Mixmaster and are thought to affect the structure of their host galaxy by hurling dust, gas, and stars away from the galactic center, in effect hollowing it out.

Eventually, theory suggests, supermassive black holes in close binaries merge, setting off yet more ripples in space-time and leading to a more massive supermassive black hole at their host galaxy's center.

Things can get a bit more exiting in galaxies with three supermassive black holes, explains Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist who heads Harvard University's astronomy department. Three objects orbiting each other represents a far less stable system than two.

"You can get a slingshot ejection" of one of the three, which leaves the galaxy at speeds of several million miles an hour, says Dr. Loeb, who was not a member of the research team reporting the discovery. This mechanism could lead to a bevy of black holes in intergalactic space.

A formal report on the observations is set for publication in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

Black holes are objects with gravity so strong that not even light travels fast enough to escape their tug. Individual, massive stars can form small black holes at the end of their lives when they collapse and explode as supernovae. These can sport masses between three and several tens of times the mass of the sun. Supermassive black holes are roughly a million to billions of times the mass of the sun..

The discovery team, led by Roger Deane, an astronomer at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, notes that the trio of supermassive black holes appeared in the sixth system they observed.

If that's any indication of the abundance of such systems - and calculations Loeb and colleagues published two years ago suggest that it could be - "it's nice to see that nature follows that, Loeb says. …

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