Astronomers managed to see for the first time dwarf galaxies with giant black holes about to merge

The two pairs of dwarf galaxies detected by NASA.

Photo: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Alabama/M. Micic//Optical: Intern. Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA / Courtesy

For the first time, astronomers have discovered a pair of dwarf galaxies with giant black holes on a collision course. In fact, it is not just one pair, but two, they point out in research that has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

The first pair of merging dwarf galaxies is in the group known as Abell 133, about 760 million light-years from Earth, and the other in the Abell 1758S group of galaxies, about 3.2 billion light-years.

These sightings and future research are expected to unlock some of the secrets of the early Universe, a time when these pairs of dwarf galaxies with colliding black holes were much more common.

Dwarf galaxies, weaker light signals

"Astronomers have found many examples of black holes on a collision course in large galaxies that are relatively close, but their search in dwarf galaxies is much more difficult and has so far failed," says University of Alabama astrophysicist Marko Micic, who led the study.

What makes these observations difficult is that the smaller size of these galaxy pairs makes their fainter light signals harder to see. These galaxies contain stars with a total mass less than about 3 billion times that of the Sun, while our Milky Way is home to the equivalent of about 60 billion suns.

To make the discovery, the researchers combined data from several telescopes: results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, results from the Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WISE), and results from the Canada-France-Hawaii Observatory. Most important were the X-ray data, as they detected the largest signals emitted by the pairs of black holes.

Clues about our own galaxy

“Using these systems as models of the early Universe, we can gain insight into questions about the first galaxies, their black holes, and the star formation that caused the collisions,” says astrophysicist Olivia Holmes of the University of Alabama.

Over billions of years, these smaller colliding galaxies are believed to have combined to form the largest galaxies (including the Milky Way) that dominate the Universe today. The researchers describe them as our "galactic ancestors."

We might even get clues about how our own galaxy came to be and evolved to the state it is in today. There are several inconsistencies about our home galaxy that still need to be resolved, they point out.

Now that astronomers have their eyes on these active galaxy nuclei, or AGNs, they will be able to glean more detail from them as our telescope technology and image analysis continue to improve.

"Follow-up observations of these two systems will allow us to study processes crucial to understanding galaxies and their young black holes," says astrophysicist Jimmy Irwin of the University of Alabama.

EE (Science alert, The Astrophysical Journal)

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