NASA shares images of two supermassive black holes merging

In an image recently shared by NASA, a galaxy called NGC 6240 contains two supermassive black holes that are in the process of merging. The image consists of new X-ray data from Chandra (shown in red, orange, and yellow) combined with an optical image from the Hubble Space Telescope, originally published in 2008.

These merging black holes are approximately 3,000 light years apart and are viewed as bright point sources in the center of the image. These black holes are in such close proximity because they spiral towards each other – a process that began about 30 million years ago.

Based on Chandra data, the discovery of two merging black holes was announced in 2020. Since 2002 there has been a keen interest in follow-up observations of NGC 6240 by Chandra and other telescopes.

The Chandra image from NGC 6240 contains two supermassive black holes
The Chandra image from NGC 6240 showing two supermassive black holes

NGC 6240 is a nearby ultraluminous infrared (ULIRG) galaxy in the constellation Ophiuchus. The galaxy is the remainder of a merger between three smaller galaxies.

According to scientists, the merging process could have started around 30 million years ago. It is estimated that the two black holes will eventually drift together and merge into one larger black hole in tens or hundreds of millions of years.

It is believed that pairs of massive black holes may explain some of the unusual behaviors seen in fast-growing supermassive black holes, such as: B. the distortion and bending of the powerful jets they create. Pairs of massive black holes are also expected to be the strongest sources of gravitational waves in the universe when they merge.