Initially, researchers wanted to study the black hole pairs, but then they found three, and they were so close to one another.
"We were only looking for pairs of black holes at the time, and yet, through our selection technique, we stumbled upon this fantastic system", said Ryan Pfeifle of George Mason University about an ancient event that occurred a billion miles away in the depths of space.
"We were only looking for pairs of black holes at the time, and yet, through our selection technique, we stumbled upon this unbelievable system", said Ryan Pfeifle, the first author of the study, in a statement. This is also the most potent piece of evidence that was found for this kind of system of supermassive black holes.
The unusual system, SDSS J0849+1114, was spotted by several observatories around the world, according to National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Then, citizen scientists collaborating in Galaxy Zoo, a crowdsourced astronomy mission, helped in tagging it as a machine of colliding galaxies.
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Infrared and X-ray observatories, however, can peer directly through the murky clouds by picking out radiation signatures and invisible wavelengths of light. Then to follow up further, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory showed bright light points at the centre of each of the three colliding galaxies, right where astronomers expect the black holes to reside.
The unexpected black hole trio was found through many different observations of the universe, including NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory.
NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array spacecraft, or NuSTAR, also spotted evidence of gas and dust circling one of the supermassive black holes.
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Finding a singular supermassive black hole is a feat but finding three galaxies are colliding is especially rare. "They are typically used to identify the actively evolving supermassive black holes and can show the impact that they have on their galaxies". Each telescope gives us a different clue about what's going on in these systems. "We hope to extend our work to find more triples using the same technique".
The black holes surround themselves in gas and dust like a shroud that obscures them from Earth-based telescopes. The discovery of the freaky system with three massive black holes in three different galaxies was part of a research published in The Astrophysical Journal. When there are three such black holes interacting, a pair should merge into a larger black hole much faster than if the two were alone. Such mergers will produce ripples through spacetime called gravitational waves.
Neither LIGO nor Europe's similar Virgo project can detect the gravitational waves produced by mergers of supermassive black holes, by the way.
Chandra's contribution revealed powerful X-rays radiating from the system, which served as evidence of material being consumed by black holes.
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The paper describing these results appears in the latest issue of The Astrophysical Journal, and a preprint is also available.