Scientists Find Most Massive Black Holes Yet

Discovering the Largest Pair of Supermassive Black Holes Yet

In a galaxy located approximately 750 million light-years away, astronomers have uncovered the largest pair of supermassive black holes ever observed by humans.

The total mass of these black holes is 280 billion times that of the Sun. While individual black holes exceeding this mass certainly exist, this particular pair of black holes – hidden within a galaxy known as B2 0402+379 – represents the heaviest binary black holes we have encountered so far.

They exhibit unique characteristics that help astronomers understand what happens when these behemoths come together.

The process of black holes evolving into supermassive black holes remains a mystery, with much of its unpredictability still unknown.

Small black holes form from the collapse of massive stellar cores, stars that have exhausted their atomic fuel and no longer shine. These black holes of stellar mass can grow by colliding with one another, giving rise to massive entities that cannot form through the path of core collapse.

There must be a way for black holes to grow into supermassive ones – hundreds of thousands to billions of times the mass of the Sun. It seems plausible that if small black holes can collide and merge, then large black holes should also be capable of merging, leading to a hierarchical series of mergers culminating in giant black holes situated at the core of every galaxy.

However, according to theory, there is a potential snag in this scenario. Black holes in binaries, by shedding orbital momentum onto surrounding gas stars, emit into the unknown and lose it in the form of gravitational waves, getting increasingly closer together.

As the orbital distance diminishes, the region where they can release energy shrinks. At around 1 parsec (3.2 light-years) apart, there isn’t enough space left to shed more momentum, causing the orbital decay to halt and stabilize. This is known as the final-parsec problem.

According to a research team led by astrophysicist Tirth Surti from Stanford University, B2 0402+379 might present a good instance of the actual existence of the final-parsec problem.

The researchers meticulously examined archival data collected by the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS) on the Gemini North telescope, conducting a new analysis to determine the properties and behavior of the two black holes embedded at the center of B2 0402+379.

Their findings provided us with the mass of the binary – 280 billion solar masses – and revealed that the galaxy itself is a “fossil” of a galaxy cluster. B2 0402+379 was once a group of galaxies; eventually, they merged into what is now B2 0402+379.

The binary supermassive black holes are remnants of a cluster of black holes that fell into the center of the Milky Way and stayed there.

These two black holes are separated by 7.3 parsecs, which is equal to 24 light-years. It isn’t the final parsec, nor is it the closest pair of supermassive black holes observed.

Interestingly, the team’s analysis suggests that the orbital decay has ceased. These black holes, despite their vast distance from each other, have been in a stable orbit for about 3 million years.

This discovery suggests that high densities might play a role in the final-parsec problem. The team believes that the previous orbital decay of this binary expelled so many stars from its vicinity that there are now no stars left to transfer orbital momentum onto. They seem to be stuck at present.

Roger Romani, an astrophysicist from Stanford University, remarked, “In general, galaxy pairs with lighter black holes seem to have enough stars and mass to propel the black holes towards each other rapidly.”

“Because this binary is so heavy, it takes a lot of stars and gas to do that job. But this binary has scavenged this material from the central galaxy and has stalled, giving us a laboratory to study.”

So, what happens now? We know that inexplicably, black holes can outgrow the total mass of the binary, but such supermassive behemoths appear to be quite rare. The nuclear binary of B2 0402+379 seems highly stable, lacking immediate means to shed orbital momentum.

It could receive a jolt in the right direction from material injected during another galaxy merger, bringing in a third supermassive black hole to the scene; however, all the galaxies that composed the initial cluster have already merged into B2 0402+379, making this scenario seem improbable.

Still, there’s another possibility. There may be material within the Milky Way that could aid this standstill alliance.

Tirth Surti, the astrophysicist, stated, “We look forward to follow-up investigations of the core of b20402+379, where we will see how much gas is present. This should give us a deeper understanding of whether supermassive black holes eventually merge or if they remain trapped in a binary form.”

This research has been published in the Astrophysical Journal.

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