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Astronomers have discovered a trinary of supermassive black holes at the center of a distant collision of multiple galaxies.
Astronomer Roger Deane of the University of Cape Town in South Africa and his colleagues have been watching a particular quasar, known as SDSS J1502+1115, in the constellation Boötes. Other astronomers had found that the object, located 4.3 billion light-years from Earth, possessed two supermassive black holes, each the center of a large galaxy smashing into another. The black holes are at least 24,000 light-years apart.
Deane wanted to confirm their existence, so he used an intercontinental array of radio dishes that yields even sharper views than the Hubble Space Telescope. Lo and behold, one of the black holes turned out to be two. “We were incredibly surprised,” says Deane, whose team reports its findings online today in Nature.
While the discovery of this system is incredibly cool, this article in the journal Science is surprisingly incorrect on some points, while also missing the main story.
First of all, there are no “radio dishes” that can yield “sharper views” than Hubble. That statement is ridiculous. Not only is the resolution of all radio telescopes far less than Hubble, this is still like comparing apples to oranges. I am surprised Science’s editors allowed that statement to get through.
Secondly, the real story here is the paucity of known supermassive black hole binaries or trinaries. Scientists believe that galaxies form by a slow merging process, almost like the formation of planets. Small galaxies merge to create larger galaxies, which then eat other galaxies. Often, two large galaxies also merge. In the last case, it is assumed that the supermassive black holes at the center of these large galaxies should form a binary system before merging themselves.
Under this scenario, astronomers should be finding many galaxies with multiple supermassive black holes at their center. So far, however, they have found only a handful, far fewer than the models predict. It is possible these giant black holes are simply hard to spot (they are black holes after all), but nonetheless the lack so far has puzzled scientists. This is the real story, which is why the astronomer near the end of the article seems so happy about it. “It’s very good to see another object,” he says. They haven’t been seeing them, and this discovery suggests that they might still be out there and that present models for galaxy formation might still be right.