NASA shares images showing two supermassive black holes merging

In a recent image shared by NASA, an emerging galaxy called NGC 6240 contains two supermassive black holes in the process of merging. The image consists of new X-ray data from Chandra (shown in red, orange and yellow) that was combined with an optical image from the Hubble Space Telescope originally launched in 2008.

These merging black holes are about 3,000 light-years away and are seen as point light sources in the middle of the image. These black holes are so close together that they spiral toward each other – a process that began about 30 million years ago.

In 2020, based on Chandra data, it was announced the discovery of two merging black holes. Since 2002, there has been intense interest in the subsequent observations of NGC 6240 by Chandra and other telescopes.

Chandra image of NGC 6240 containing two supermassive black holes

NGC 6240 is a nearby ultra-bright infrared galaxy (ULIRG) in the constellation Ophiuchus. The galaxy is the remnant of a fusion between three smaller galaxies.

According to scientists, the fusion process could have started about 30 million years ago. It is estimated that the two black holes will eventually move together and merge into a larger black hole in a few tens or hundreds of millions of years from now.

It is believed that pairs of massive black holes may explain some of the unusual behaviors observed by fast-growing supermassive black holes, such as the distortion and bending seen in the powerful jets they produce. Pairs of massive black holes in the fusion process are also expected to be the strongest sources of gravitational waves in the Universe.