Supermassive black holes mysteriously aligned

Fluctuations in the early Universe could be responsible for the unexpected discovery of a collection of black holes that are all shooting out jets in the same direction.

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An image of the the ELAIS-N1 region, with aligned galaxy jets circled in the left panel.
Credit: Prof Russ Taylor

A collection of supermassive black holes stretching across a region of the distant Universe are all spinning out powerful jets in the same direction, making for an extremely unusual discovery.

This jet alignment could only exist if the black holes are all spinning in the same direction.

As the supermassive black holes all reside at the centre of galaxies, the observations reveal new information about the formation of galaxies in the early Universe.

"Since these black holes don’t know about each other, or have any way of exchanging information or influencing each other directly over such vast scales, this spin alignment must have occurred during the formation of the galaxies in the early universe," says Prof Andrew Russ Taylor, principal author of the study made by researchers at the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.

Observations that led to the discovery were made using the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope in India to scan an area of the sky called ELAIS-N1 over a period of three years.

The discovery, according to astronomers, suggests there is a coherent spin in the structure of this area of space, probably as a result of the processes that occurred during the formation of the Universe.

The team behind the observations had begun an investigation into the faintest radio sources in the Universe when they made the discovery, somewhat unintentionally. Earlier observations had detected a lack of uniformity in the orientations of galaxies, but the radio images enabled the team to observe the supermassive black holes' jets to reveal the alignment of galaxies more clearly.

The result is a finding that has never been predicted by theories or computer models and is challenging existing theories about the origins of the Universe.

UWC Prof Romeel Dave says: “This is not obviously expected based on our current understanding of cosmology. It’s a bizarre finding.”


Front image: Jets shooting out of galaxy Centaurus A's central black hole, much like those observed as part of the new study.
Credit: ESO/WFI (visible); MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al. (microwave); NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al. (X-ray)
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