Barnard-Seyfert Astronomical Society

Minor mergers have massive consequences for black holes

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

When you think of our sun, the nearest star to our world, you think of an isolated entity, with more than four light years separating it from its next nearest neighbor. But it wasn't always so: billions of years ago, when our sun was first created, it very likely formed in concert with thousands of other stars, when a giant molecular cloud containing perhaps a million times the mass of our solar system collapsed. While the vast majority of stars that the universe forms—some ninety-five percent—are the mass of our sun or smaller, a rare but significant fraction are ultra-massive, containing tens or even hundreds of times the mass our star contains. When these stars run out of fuel in their cores, they explode in a fantastic Type II supernova, where the star's core collapses. In the most massive cases, this forms a black hole.

IImages credit: NGC 3393 in the optical (L) by M. Malkan (UCLA), HST, NASA (L); NGC 3393 in the X-ray and optical (R), composite by NASA / CXC / SAO / G. Fabbiano et al. (X-ray) and NASA/STScI (optical).

Over time, many generations of stars—and hence, many black holes—form, with the majority eventually migrating towards the centers of their host galaxies and merging together. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, houses a supermassive black hole that weighs in at about four million solar masses, while our big sister, Andromeda, has one nearly twenty times as massive. But even relatively isolated galaxies didn't simply form from the monolithic collapse of an isolated clump of matter, but by hierarchical mergers of smaller galaxies over tremendous timescales. If galaxies with large amounts of stars all have black holes at their centers, then we should be able to see some fraction of Milky Way-sized galaxies with not just one, but multiple supermassive black holes at their center!

It was only in the early 2000s that NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory was able to find the first binary supermassive black hole in a galaxy, and that was in an ultra-luminous galaxy with a double core. Many other examples were discovered since, but for a decade they were all in ultra-massive, active galaxies. That all changed in 2011, with the discovery of two active, massive black holes at the center of the regular spiral galaxy NGC 3393, a galaxy that must have undergone only minor mergers no less than a billion years ago, where the black hole pair is separated by only 490 light years! It's only in the cores of active, X-ray emitting galaxies that we can detect binary black holes like this. Examples like NGC 3393 and IC 4970 are not only confirming our picture of galaxy growth and formation, but are teaching us that supermassive relics from ancient, minor mergers might persist as standalone entities for longer than we ever thought!

Check out some cool images and artist reconstructions of black holes from Chandra: Check out this article to find out.

Kids can learn all about Black Holes from this cool animation at NASA’s Space Place: NASA's Space place web site.