Astronomers Observe Two Super-Massive Black Holes Orbiting Each Other For The First Time

Astronomers have used radio waves to identify two super-massive black holes orbiting each other for the first time in recorded history.

Reported in the Astrophysical Journal, a new series of observations may change the way we think about black holes.

Using the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), researchers studied a galaxy 750 million light-years from Earth (0402+379). This galaxy has been the subject of intense scrutiny since 2003 where it was initially posited that two super-massive black holes were orbiting each other within. According to Professor Greg Taylor, from the University of New Mexico, this is a never-before seen phenomena:

“For a long time, we’ve been looking into space to try and find a pair of these supermassive black holes orbiting as a result of two galaxies merging. Even though we’ve theorized that this should be happening, nobody had ever seen it until now.”

Now, we can confirm this is actually happening.

A colored VLBA map of radio galaxy 0402+379 at 22 GHz. The galaxy hosts two supermassive black holes at its center, being denoted as C1 and C2. Credit: UNM Newsroom.
Data shows that the two black holes within have a combined mass 15 billion times the mass of our Sun. In comparison, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way is only 4 million times the mass of our Sun. The black holes are 23 light-years from each other and orbit around the other every 24,000 years. This massive orbit made it quite a challenge to locate according to co-author Professor Roger W. Romani, from Stanford University.

“If you imagine a snail on the recently discovered Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri – 4.243 light-years away – moving at 1 centimeter a second, that’s the angular motion we’re resolving here.”

The research team will take another observation of this system in three or four years to confirm the motion and obtain a precise orbit. In the meantime, the team hopes that this discovery will encourage related work from astronomers around the world.

VLBA map of radio galaxy 0402+379 at 15 GHz. It hosts two supermassive black holes at its center, being denoted as C1 and C2. Credit: UNM Newsroom.

The Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) is a system of ten radio telescopes which are operated remotely from their Array Operations Center located in Socorro, New Mexico, as a part of the Long Baseline Observatory (LBO). These ten radio antennas work together as an array that forms the longest system in the world that uses very long baseline interferometry. The longest baseline available in this interferometer is about 8,611 kilometres (5,351 mi).


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