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Astronomers observe supermassive black holes in merging galaxies

11 November 2018

These images reveal the final stage of a union between pairs of galactic nuclei in the messy cores of colliding galaxies. 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 can not penetrate them. Most prior observations of colliding galaxies have caught the coalescing black holes at earlier stages when they were about 10 times farther away.

We're just beginning to imagine the titanic forces involved when two galactic cores and their supermassive black holes merge like in this simulation.

Scientists successfully captured a series of images they say show what happens when galaxies collide and merge.

Now scientists were able to observe several pairs of galaxies that are in the later stages of merging, in the process of aligning their Central supermassive black holes.

The researchers then combed through the Hubble archive, zeroing in on the merging galaxies they spotted in the X-ray data.

It only took a billion years or so, but the black holes of two merging galaxies are finally colliding together in a colourful spectacle photographed by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

Then they looked for galaxies that matched these X-rays using data from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. A thick curtain of material forms and shields the galaxy nuclei from view in visible light.

A team of researchers led by Michael Koss of Eureka Scientific Inc., in Kirkland, Washington, 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.

"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", said Laura Blecha, assistant professor of physics at the University of Florida and a co-author of the study. The findings suggest that such events are more common than astronomers used to think.

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The team's results support the theory that galaxy mergers explain how some supermassive black holes become so monstrously large.

"There are competing ideas; one idea is that you have a bunch of gas in the galaxy that slowly feeds the supermassive black hole". Therefore, these galaxies were already in the final stages of a merger.

One possible explanation for the apparent lack of a link between quasars and merging galaxies is that gas and dust swirling around these galaxies is likely to heavily obscure the black holes.

As two galaxies finally merge, their black holes emit gravitational waves, which are a form of powerful energy that causes ripples in space-time.

The team targeted galaxies located an average of 330 million light-years from Earth - relatively close by in cosmic terms.

Something similar is expected to happen when our Milky Way galaxy crashes with the nearby Andromeda galaxy, though it's not expected to happen anytime soon, the researchers said.

In about 6 billion years, scientists estimate that the Milky Way will merge with the Andromeda galaxy into one big galaxy. Gravitational wave detectors tell astronomers what area, and Koss' research tells them whether that object is likely to host a supermassive black hole merger. Her experience in writing also intersects the IT niche, given the fact that she worked as a content editor for firms that produce software for mobile devices. Credit: NASA, ESA, W. M. Keck Observatory, Pan-STARRS and M. Koss.

Future infrared telescopes such as NASA's highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), slated for launch in 2021, will provide an even better view of mergers in dusty, heavily obscured galaxies. New data has shed light on how can appear even more massive black holes.

Astronomers observe supermassive black holes in merging galaxies