For the first time, astronomers have observed several pairs of galaxies in the final stages of merging, peering through thick walls of gas and dust to capture supermassive black holes drawing closer together before they coalesce.
Led by UMD alumnus Michael Koss M.S. ’07, Ph.D. ’11, a research scientist at Eureka Scientific, with contributions from UMD astronomers, the team surveyed hundreds of nearby galaxies using imagery from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. The team described their findings in a research paper published yesterday in Nature.
“Seeing the pairs of merging galaxy nuclei associated with these huge black holes so close together was pretty amazing,” Koss said.
The high-resolution images also provide a close-up preview of a phenomenon that astronomers suspect was more common in the early universe, when galaxy mergers were more frequent. When the black holes finally do collide, they will unleash powerful energy in the form of gravitational waves—ripples in space-time recently detected for the first time.
Astronomy professors Richard Mushotzky and Sylvain Veilleux and former JSI Prize Postdoctoral Fellow Laura Blecha were coauthors of the paper.