For the first time ever, an international research team has observed three supermassive black holes at the core of the galaxy NGC 6240.
Every galaxy, including our own Milky Way, has at least one supermassive black hole that powers them. But scientists have now proved for the first time that a galaxy contains three supermassive black holes.
NGC 6240 is known as an irregular galaxy due to its unusual shape. The galaxy lies around 300 million light-years away from us which is pretty close by cosmic standards. Due to its proximity, astronomers have been able to study it in all wavelengths of light.
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Previously, astronomers thought the collision of two smaller galaxies created NGC 6240 and therefore the galaxy contains two black holes in its core. But new observations revealed a third supermassive black hole, each having the mass of more than 90 million suns.
The researchers obtained the new observations of the galaxy using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile.
“Through our observations with extremely high spatial resolution we were able to show that the interacting galaxy system NGC 6240 hosts not two — as previously assumed — but three supermassive black holes in its centre,” said Wolfram Kollatschny, lead study author and professor at the University of Göttingen, in a statement.
These galactic ancestors moved towards each other at velocities of several hundred km/s. They are still in the process of merging. All three of the black holes lie in a region of space less than 3000 light-years across.
“Up until now, such a concentration of three supermassive black holes had never been discovered in the universe,” said Peter Weilbacher, study author at the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam. “The present case provides evidence of a simultaneous merging process of three galaxies along with their central black holes.”
This discovery will help us understand the evolution of galaxies over time, especially the largest galaxies in the universe.
“If, however, simultaneous merging processes of several galaxies took place, then the largest galaxies with their central supermassive black holes were able to evolve much faster,” Weilbacher said. “Our observations provide the first indication of this scenario.”
The researchers say that in a few million years the galaxies will merge together. Therefore, it will create incredibly strong gravitational waves or ripples in space-time.
Scientists published their findings Thursday in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.