Astronomers discover pairs of black holes ready to merge as galaxies collide

Images reveal the final stages of galactic collisions. Pic NASA

Researchers have managed to obtain a set of images that capture the effects that appear after galaxies collide and merge, leading to a huge energy explosion and the unification of supermassive black holes into a massive giant black hole. This is because when the merger of a pair of galaxies is almost complete, they are surrounded by thick clouds of dust and gas, and only very high-resolution imagery can isolate the two galaxies' colliding nuclei. Most prior observations of colliding galaxies have caught the coalescing black holes at earlier stages when they were about 10 times farther away.

According to NASA, a "galaxy merger" is a slow process that can take more than a billion years to complete. "Around 6 billion years from now, the two galaxies will merge to form a single elliptical galaxy". Some of the material also falls onto the black holes at the cores of the merging galaxies.

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

"Seeing the pairs of merging galaxy nuclei associated with these huge black holes so close together was pretty fantastic", said Michael Koss, co-author of the new study published in the journal Nature.

To check their results, they compared the survey galaxies with a control group of 176 other galaxies, from the Hubble archive, that lack actively growing black holes.

Astronomers also said that these black holes grow the quickest during the final stages of a galaxy merger which was also the case with these two galaxies that we've told you about.

Led by University of Maryland alumnus Michael Koss, a research scientist at Eureka Scientific, the team surveyed hundreds of nearby galaxies using imagery from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii as well as NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

Researcher Laura Blecha said that the fact that black holes grow faster and faster as the merging process progresses shows that such galaxy encounters are really essential for experts' understanding of how these objects can get such vast over time. The findings suggest that such events are more common than astronomers used to think.

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This last step helped the researchers confirm that the luminous galactic cores found in their census of dusty interacting galaxies are indeed a signature of rapidly-growing black hole pairs headed for a collision.

The scientists said each of the black holes were said to once occupy the centre of one of the two original, smaller galaxies.

Black holes are areas of space-time which are so dense that nothing - whether matter or energy - can escape them.

"Galactic mergers might be a key way of growing black holes", Koss said. Therefore, these galaxies were already in the final stages of a merger. The massive black holes at the center of the colliding galaxies are expanding "as they feast on gas kicked up by the galaxy merger", the statement said. These ripples in space-time, which were predicted by Einstein, were recently detected in 2016 by groundbreaking experiments.

The astronomers targeted galaxies with an average distance of 330 million light-years from Earth.

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. OSIRIS will allow them to measure both the rotation rate and mass of the black holes, which would make it possible to estimate how long it will take before the supermassive black holes collide and how strong the gravitational wave signal might be. Image credit: NASA / ESA / M. Koss, Eureka Scientific, Inc / W. M. Keck Observatory / Pan-STARRS.

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. These direct observations had not been made before.

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