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Astronomers find a double black hole

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Posted at 12:31 PM, Aug 31, 2015
and last updated 2015-08-31 12:31:04-04

(CNN) — Single black holes are impressive enough, but astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have discovered a galaxy being powered by a quasar that contains two of the time-space benders, “furiously whirling about each other,” the space agency observed in a news release.

The galaxy, known as Markarian 231, is — at 600 million light-years away — the nearest galaxy to Earth that hosts a quasar, the incredibly powerful entities that are the brightest objects in the universe.

This artistic illustration is of a binary black hole found in the centre of the nearest quasar to Earth, Markarian 231. The binary black holes are predicted to spiral together and collide within a few hundred thousand years. Mrk 231 is located 600 million light-years away. Image credits: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

This artistic illustration is of a binary black hole found in the centre of the nearest quasar to Earth, Markarian 231. The binary black holes are predicted to spiral together and collide within a few hundred thousand years. Mrk 231 is located 600 million light-years away. Image credits: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

As the first time such a binary black hole has been confirmed to exist in a quasar, the discovery has repercussions for their study. The binary structure may be more common than originally thought.

“We are extremely excited about this finding because it not only shows the existence of a close binary black hole in Mrk 231, but also paves a new way to systematically search binary black holes via the nature of their ultraviolet light emission,” said Youjun Lu of the National Astronomical Observatories of China, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The primary black hole is believed to be 150 million times the mass of our sun. Its partner is 4 million times the mass of our sun.

The energy created by the two black holes is producing stars in Mrk 231 at a rate 100 times that of the Milky Way, where our solar system resides. There’s a black hole at the heart of the Milky Way, too, but no quasar.

Quasars — the word comes from an abbreviation of “quasi-stellar objects” — were discovered in 1963 by astronomer Maarten Schmidt.

The objects, which are extremely distant, pump out huge amounts of radiation, thanks to the action of the black holes within. The black holes are sucking in and crushing anything nearby: planets, stars, whatever structures wander into their force field.

The result is an infinitely hot “accretion disc.”

“That disc then is brighter than … a whole galaxy,” Schmidt told CNN in 2013.

As for black holes, those curious objects created by star collapse, they might not be as endlessly deep as believed.

Just last week, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking posited that a person passing through a black hole — which, with its massive gravitational force, is like a bottomless pit that not even light can escape — may end up in another universe.

“The hole would need to be large, and if it was rotating, it might have a passage to another universe. But you couldn’t come back to our universe,” Hawking said last week. “So, although I’m keen on space flight, I’m not going to try that.”

The black holes in Mrk 231 will collide in “a few hundred thousand years,” said NASA. Might be best to avoid the area if you’re piloting a starship when the time comes.

The findings were originally published in the August 14 edition of The Astrophysical Journal.