This story was updated at 11:14 a.m. ET.
A team of astronomers recently discovered 33 sets of double black holes in distant galaxies. Though these black hole pairs had been predicted theoretically, only a handful had been observed so far.
"[The findings] show that dual
supermassive black hole systems are much more common than previously known from
observations," said researcher Julia Comerford, an astrophysicist at the
Comerford presented the discovery
Monday at the 215th meeting of the American
Astronomical Society in
Scientists think that most galaxies, including our own Milky Way, host supermassive black holes lurking at their centers. So pairs of giant black holes are thought to result when two galaxies collide and merge together. Each galaxy's black hole would gradually spiral in toward the center of the newly created fusion galaxy and orbit around each other in a pair.
In fact, this fate is predicted for the supermassive black hole inside our own galaxy. The Milky Way is headed toward an eventual collision with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, and their two black holes will likely join in just this way.
Most of the newly discovered pairs
were found through the DEEP2 Galaxy Redshift Survey, a survey of 50,000
galaxies observed with the Deep Imaging Multi-Object Spectrograph on the
10-meter (400-inch) Keck II Telescope atop Mauna Kea in
The astronomers detected their pairs by noting their relative motion to each other. When something moves away from an observer, its light appears redder, or red-shifted (this shift in wavelength is known as the Doppler effect). And when an object moves toward an observer, its light appears bluer.
So the researchers measured the relative velocities of apparent black holes inside distant galaxies and found some sets that appeared to be very close to each other ? about 3,000 light-years apart, or one-eighth the distance from the sun to the center of the Milky Way ? indicating they were dual black holes.
Ultimately, these pairs are predicted to drift even closer, eventually becoming gravitationally-bound binary black holes, and then finally colliding to form a single, humongous black hole.
Since dual black holes result from galaxy mergers, the findings could help scientists estimate how often galaxies collide.
The researchers estimated that among the galaxies in their sample, which are particularly far away, each galaxy should collide with another galaxy about three times every billion years.
"This merger rate is in agreement with other methods," Comerford said. "The important thing about using these to estimate the merger rate is it's a completely independent means."
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