Astronomers using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory

Astronomers using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory discovered the first pair of supermassive black holes in a spiral galaxy similar to the Milky Way, NASA announced Wednesday.

Approximately 160 million light years from Earth, the pair is the nearest known such phenomenon.

The black holes are located near the center of the spiral galaxy NGC 3393. Separated by only 490 light years, the black holes are likely the remnant of a merger of two galaxies of unequal mass a billion or more years ago.

Both of the supermassive black holes are heavily obscured by dust and gas, which makes them difficult to observe in optical light. Because X-rays are more energetic, they can penetrate this obscuring material. Chandra’s X-ray spectra show clear signatures of a pair of supermassive black holes.

“If this galaxy weren’t so close, we’d have no chance of separating the two black holes the way we have,” said Pepi Fabbiano of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who led the study that appeared Wednesday in on-line issue of the journal Nature. “Since this galaxy was right under our noses by cosmic standards, it makes us wonder how many of these black hole pairs we’ve been missing.”

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