Peering through thick walls of gas and dust surrounding the messy cores of merging galaxies, astronomers are getting their best view yet of close pairs of supermassive black holes as they march toward coalescence into mega black holes.
A team of researchers led by Michael Koss of Eureka Scientific Inc., in Kirkland, Washington, United States, performed the largest survey of the cores of nearby galaxies in near-infrared light, using high-resolution images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. The Hubble observations represent over 20 years’ worth of snapshots from its vast archive.
“Seeing the pairs of merging galaxy nuclei associated with these huge black holes so close together was pretty amazing,” says Koss. “In our study, we see two galaxy nuclei right when the images were taken. You can’t argue with it; it’s a very ‘clean’ result, which doesn’t rely on interpretation.”
The images also provide a close-up preview of a phenomenon that must have been more common in the early universe, when galaxy mergers were more frequent. When galaxies collide, their monster black holes can unleash powerful energy in the form of gravitational waves, the kind of ripples in space-time that were just recently detected by ground-breaking experiments.
The new study also offers a preview of what will likely happen in our own cosmic backyard, in several billion years, when our Milky Way combines with the neighbouring Andromeda galaxy and their respective central black holes smash together.
“Computer simulations of galaxy smashups show us that black holes grow fastest during the final stages of mergers, near the time when the black holes interact, and that’s what we have found in our survey,” says study team member Laura Blecha of the University of Florida, in Gainesville. “The fact that black holes grow faster and faster as mergers progress tells us galaxy encounters are really important for our understanding of how these objects got to be so monstrously big.”
A galaxy merger is a slow process lasting more than a billion years as two galaxies, under the inexorable pull of gravity, dance toward each other before finally joining together. Simulations reveal that galaxies kick up plenty of gas and dust as they undergo this slow-motion train wreck.
The ejected material often forms a thick curtain around the centres of the coalescing galaxies, shielding them from view in visible light. Some of the material also falls onto the black holes at the cores of the merging galaxies. The black holes grow at a fast clip as they engorge themselves with their cosmic food, and, being messy eaters, they cause the infalling gas to blaze brightly. This speedy growth occurs during the last 10 million to 20 million years of the union. The Hubble and Keck Observatory images captured close-up views of this final stage, when the bulked-up black holes are only about 3,000 light years apart — a near-embrace in cosmic terms.
It’s not easy to find galaxy nuclei so close together. Most prior observations of colliding galaxies have caught the coalescing black holes at earlier stages when they were about 10 times farther away. The late stage of the merger process is so elusive because the interacting galaxies are encased in dense dust and gas and require high-resolution observations in infrared light that can see through the clouds and pinpoint the locations of the two merging nuclei.
The team first searched for visually obscured, active black holes by sifting through 10 years’ worth of X-ray data from the Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) aboard NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Telescope, a high-energy space observatory. “Gas falling onto the black holes emits X-rays, and the brightness of the X-rays tells you how quickly the black hole is growing,” Koss explains. “I didn’t know if we would find hidden mergers, but we suspected, based on computer simulations, that they would be in heavily shrouded galaxies.Therefore we tried to peer through the dust with the sharpest images possible, in hopes of finding coalescing black holes.”
The researchers combed through the Hubble archive, identifying those merging galaxies they spotted in the X-ray data. They then used the Keck Observatory’s super-sharp, near-infrared vision to observe a larger sample of the X-ray-producing black holes not found in the Hubble archive.
“People had conducted studies to look for these close interacting black holes before, but what really enabled this particular study were the X-rays that can break through the cocoon of dust,” Koss says. “We also looked a bit farther in the universe so that we could survey a larger volume of space, giving us a greater chance of finding more luminous, rapidly growing black holes.”
The team targeted galaxies with an average distance of 330 million light years from Earth. Many of the galaxies are similar in size to the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies. The team analysed 96 galaxies from the Keck Observatory and 385 galaxies from the Hubble archive found in 38 different Hubble observation programs. The sample galaxies are representative of what astronomers would find by conducting an all-sky survey.
To verify their results, Koss’s team compared the survey galaxies with 176 other galaxies from the Hubble archive that lack actively growing black holes. The comparison confirmed that the luminous cores found in the researchers’ census of dusty interacting galaxies are indeed a signature of rapidly growing black-hole pairs headed for a collision.
When the two supermassive black holes in each of these systems finally come together in millions of years, their encounters will produce strong gravitational waves. Gravitational waves produced by the collision of two stellar-mass black holes have already been detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Observatories such as the planned NASA/ESA space-based Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) will be able to detect the lower-frequency gravitational waves from supermassive black hole mergers, which are a million times more massive than those detected by LIGO.
Future infrared telescopes, such as NASA’s planned James Webb Space Telescope and a new generation of giant ground-based telescopes, will provide an even better probe of dusty galaxy collisions by measuring the masses, growth rate, and dynamics of close black-hole pairs. The Webb telescope may also be able to look in mid-infrared light to uncover more galaxy interactions so encased in thick gas and dust that even near-infrared light cannot penetrate them.
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