NASA has been on the search for pairs of black holes out in the universe. In their search, the scientists discovered something more interesting than pairs of supermassive black holes. Scientist Ryan Pfeifle from George Mason University in Virginia says that the team “stumbled on this amazing system.”
What is so amazing about the system the team has found is that it has three actively feeding supermassive black holes that are on a collision course. The system is called SDSS J084905.51+111447.2 and has been imaged by several observatories, including three NASA telescopes.
NASA says that the system is a billion light-years from Earth. Scientists combined data from telescopes on the ground and in space to discover the distant system. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope scanned large parts of the sky in optical light from New Mexico and imaged the system. With the help of scientists participating in a project called Galaxy Zoo, the system was tagged as a system of colliding galaxies.
NASA’s WISE mission then revealed that the system was glowing intensely in infrared light indicating a phase in galaxy merger where one black hole is feeding rapidly. The team then used Chandra and the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona. Chandra revealed that there were X-ray sources, a telltale sign of material being consumed by the black holes at the center of each galaxy.
Chandra and the NASA NuSTAR telescope array found evidence of large amounts of gas and dust around one of the black holes, which is typical of a merging black hole system. NASA says that one reason its so difficult to find a triplet system such as this is that they and dual black hole systems are exceedingly rare and likely to be shrouded in dust and gas blocking much of their light.