Long ago and far away, a duo of dancing supermassive black holes appear to be spiraling in towards one another, eventually doomed to collide in a stupendous, almost unimaginable, cosmic smash-up. Dancing in the dark, the strange pair will merge a mere million years from now, liberating energy equivalent to 100 million supernova blasts, in which massive stars perish. The dark-hearts of most, if not all, large galaxies in the Universe–including our own Milky Way–contain supermassive black holes with masses equivalent to millions, or even billions, of Suns, and these objects of incredible darkness and their host galaxies appear to evolve
together, or “co-evolve”. Theory predicts that as galaxies collide and eventually merge, growing more and more massive as a result, so too do their hearts of darkness. In the January 7, 2015 issue of the journal Nature, a team of astronomers report on a weird repeating light signal from a distant quasar that they say is most likely the result of a duo of dancing supermassive black holes in the last act of a merger–something that is predicted from theory but which has never been seen before! A quasar is an extremely brilliant, luminous object that out-dazzles all of the stars in its host galaxy combined, and is visible from across the entire Universe!
Black holes by themselves are impossible to observe, cloaked as they are in impenetrable darkness. However, their gravity can hoist in ambient gas to create a whirling, swirling band of material that is termed an accretion disk. The jitter-bugging particles of the disk are accelerated to enormous speeds and liberate stupendous quantities of energy in the form of heat and powerful X-rays and gamma rays. When this strange process occurs in the case of a supermassive black hole, the result is a quasar.
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