Astronomers have spotted what appear to be two supermassive black holes at the heart of a remote galaxy, circling each other like dance partners. The incredibly rare sighting was made with the help of NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.
It is these close-knit black holes, also called black hole binaries, that have been the hardest to find. The objects are usually too small to be resolved even by powerful telescopes. Only a few strong candidates have been identified to date, all relatively nearby. The new WISE J233237.05-505643.5 is a new candidate, and located much farther away, at 3.8 billion light-years from Earth.
Radio images with the Australian Telescope Compact Array were key to identifying the dual nature of WISE J233237.05-505643.5. Supermassive black holes at the cores of galaxies typically shoot out pencil-straight jets, but, in this case, the jet showed a zigzag pattern. According to the scientists, a second massive black hole could, in essence, be pushing its weight around to change the shape of the other black hole’s jet.
“We note some caution in interpreting this mysterious system,” said Daniel Stern of JPL, a co-author of the study. “There are several extremely unusual properties to this system, from the multiple radio jets to the Gemini data, which indicate a highly perturbed disk of accreting material around the black hole, or holes. Two merging black holes, which should be a common event in the universe, would appear to be simplest explanation to explain all the current observations.”
WISE J233237.05–505643.5: A Double-peaked, Broad-lined Active Galactic Nucleus with a Spiral-shaped Radio Morphology, Chao-Wei Tsai et al. 2013 ApJ 779 41
Paper at arXiv