Scientists Discover Closest-Ever Supermassive Black Hole Binary System

A team of researchers has discovered a pair of black holes that represent the closest ever supermassive black hole binary system on record. This comes less than two years after scientists from the LIGO observatory had made its landmark gravitational wave discovery, and also confirmed that these waves emanated from the collision of two supermassive black holes orbiting extremely close to each other.

Researchers discovered the binary system in the spiral galaxy NGC 7674 (aka Mrk 533), which is located about 400 million light-years away from our planet, according to a report from the International Business Times. The black holes are believed to be less than a light-year apart from each other, making this the tiniest distance between two black holes in a supermassive black hole binary system. Prior to this discovery, the closest known pair had 24 light-years separating the black holes within it, wrote Sky and Telescope.

While 400 million light-years from Earth is relatively close to us for such a system, this distance is also dozens of times farther than the distance between Earth and Andromeda, and several thousand times greater than the Milky Way galaxy’s diameter, Popular Mechanics added. The National Center for Radio Astrophysics and Rochester Institute of Technology scientists also discovered that the combined mass of both black holes in the system is approximately 40 million times heavier than that of of our sun.

As stressed by Popular Mechanics, the two supermassive black holes in the binary system take about 100,000 years to orbit each other. But they both are generating gravitational waves that reduce their individual energy a bit. That means they will eventually move closer together, and eventually collide with each other several million years from now.

The above discoveries can be credited to a technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), or multiple radio telescopes working in concert with each other to come up with an angular resolution of milliarcseconds or microarcseconds – that’s about 10 million times the human eye’s angular resolution. Through this method, the scientists found radio emissions emanating from two parts of the center of NGC 7674.

“The two radio sources have properties that are known to be associated with massive black holes that are accreting gas, implying the presence of two black holes,” explained study co-author Dr. Preeti Kharb from the NCRA in a statement.

This new discovery of the closest supermassive black hole binary system adds to a growing amount of proof that such black holes can collide in galaxies, and possibly emit gravitational waves.

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