NASA: Chandra X-ray Observatory Discovers Nearest Pair of Supermassive Black Holes

1 Sep 2011, Comments: | Views: 1274 | | Category: Science

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This is NGC 3115, a galaxy located about 32 million light years from Earth. This composite image contains X-rays from Chandra as well as optical data from the Very Large Telescope.
Evidence for a pair of supermassive black holes in a spiral galaxy has been found in data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. This main image is a composite of X-rays from Chandra (blue) and optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope (gold) of the spiral galaxy NGC 3393. Meanwhile, the inset box shows the central region of NGC 3993 as observed just by Chandra.

 Astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory discovered the first pair of supermassive black holes in a spiral galaxy similar to the Milky Way. Approximately 160 million light years from Earth, the pair is the nearest known such phenomenon.

The black holes are located near the center of the spiral galaxy NGC 3393. Separated by only 490 light years, the black holes are likely the remnant of a merger of two galaxies of unequal mass a billion or more years ago.

"If this galaxy wasn't so close, we'd have no chance of separating the two black holes the way we have," said Pepi Fabbiano of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass., who led the study that appears in this week's online issue of the journal Nature. "Since this galaxy was right under our noses by cosmic standards, it makes us wonder how many of these black hole pairs we've been missing."

Previous observations in X-rays and at other wavelengths indicated that a single supermassive black hole existed in the center of NGC 3393. However, a long look by Chandra allowed the researchers to detect and separate the dual black holes. Both black holes are actively growing and emitting X-rays as gas falls towards them and becomes hotter.

Black Hole - Gravitie's relentless Pull

Before going in to details first of all let us see what is a Black Hole. Loosely speaking, a black hole is an object that is so compact (in other words, has enough mass in a small enough volume) that its gravitational force is strong enough to prevent light or anything else from escaping.

The existence of black holes was first proposed in the 18th century, based on the known laws of gravity. The more massive an object, or the smaller its size, the larger the gravitational force felt on its surface. John Michell and Pierre-Simon Laplace both independently argued that if an object were either extremely massive or extremely small, it might not be possible at all to escape its gravity. Even light could be forever captured.

The name "black hole" was introduced by John Archibald Wheeler in 1967. It stuck, and has even become a common term for any type of mysterious bottomless pit. Physicists and mathematicians have found that space and time near black holes have many unusual properties. Because of this, black holes have become a favorite topic for science fiction writers. However, black holes are not fiction. They form whenever massive but otherwise normal stars die. We cannot see black holes, but we can detect material falling into black holes and being attracted by black holes. In this way, astronomers have identified and measured the mass of many black holes in the Universe through careful observations of the sky. We now know that our Universe is quite literally filled with billions of black holes.

Black holes of stellar mass are expected to form when heavy stars collapse in a supernova at the end of their life cycle. After a black hole has formed it can continue to grow by absorbing mass from its surroundings. By absorbing other stars and merging with other black holes, supermassive black holes of millions of solar masses may be formed.

Despite its invisible interior, the presence of a black hole can be inferred through its interaction with other matter. Astronomers have identified numerous stellar black hole candidates in binary systems, by studying their interaction with their companion stars. There is growing consensus that supermassive black holes exist in the centers of most galaxies. In particular, there is strong evidence of a black hole of more than 4 million solar masses at the center of our Milky Way.

To Know More on Black Hole -> , Wikipedia

To Explore Black Holes -> A great Multimedia Resoure by Hubblesite->

Is this Pair due to Minor Merge of Unequal Galaxies?

When two equal-sized spiral galaxies merge, astronomers think it should result in the formation of a black hole pair and a galaxy with a disrupted appearance and intense star formation. A well-known example is the pair of supermassive black holes in NGC 6240, which is located about 330 million light years from Earth.

However, NGC 3393 is a well-organized spiral galaxy, and its central bulge is dominated by old stars. These are unusual properties for a galaxy containing a pair of black holes. Instead, NGC 3393 may be the first known instance where the merger of a large galaxy and a much smaller one, dubbed a "minor merger" by scientists, has resulted in the formation of a pair of supermassive black holes. In fact, some theories say that minor mergers should be the most common way for black hole pairs to form, but good candidates have been difficult to find because the merged galaxy is expected to look so typical.

"The two galaxies have merged without a trace of the earlier collision, apart from the two black holes," said co-author Junfeng Wang, also from CfA. "If there was a mismatch in size between the two galaxies it wouldn't be a surprise for the bigger one to survive unscathed."

Both of the supermassive black holes are heavily obscured by dust and gas, which makes them difficult to observe in optical light. Because X-rays are more energetic, they can penetrate this obscuring material. Chandra's X-ray spectra show clear signatures of a pair of supermassive black holes.

"Collisions and mergers are one of the most important ways for galaxies and black holes to grow," said co-author Guido Risaliti of CfA and the National Institute for Astrophysics in Florence, Italy. "Finding a black hole pair in a spiral galaxy is an important clue in our quest to learn how this happens."

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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