This pair of merging black holes is the closest to Earth we've ever found

Close-up view of the two bright galactic nuclei, each housing a supermassive black hole, in NGC 7727, a galaxy located 89 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Aquarius.
Close-up view of the two bright galactic nuclei, each housing a supermassive black hole, in NGC 7727, a galaxy located 89 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Aquarius. (Image credit: ESO/Voggel et al.)

A pair of supermassive black holes that will soon become one has been discovered hiding in a nearby galaxy.

The two black holes dance around each other at the center of the galaxy NGC 7727, located some 89 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Aquarius (opens in new tab). Scientists say they have never seen such a pair so close to our planet, but also so close to each other. 

The black hole couple, which will merge into one giant black hole 250 million years from now, escaped detection for so long because it somehow doesn't emit much X-ray radiation, the usual giveaway indicating the presence of black holes. It was discovered and analyzed by a power couple of telescopes, the Very Large Telescope (opens in new tab) at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile and the Hubble Space Telescope (opens in new tab).

Related: 8 ways we know that black holes really do exist

"It is the first time we find two supermassive black holes that are this close to each other, less than half the separation of the previous record holder," Karina Voggel, an astronomer at the Strasbourg Observatory in France and lead author of the new study, said in a statement. (opens in new tab) 

The previous record holder for the closest known black hole couple lies 470 million light-years away from Earth, more than five times farther than the newly discovered duo. The close distance of the NGC 7727 pair enabled astronomers for the first time to determine the masses of the two black holes by measuring how their gravity affects stars in their vicinity. 

This image shows close-up (left) and wide (right) views of the two bright galactic nuclei of NGC 7727 89 million light-years from Earth. Each nuclei is home to a supermassive black hole at its center.

This image shows close-up (left) and wide (right) views of the two bright galactic nuclei of NGC 7727 89 million light-years from Earth. Each nuclei is home to a supermassive black hole at its center. (Image credit: ESO/Voggel et al.; ESO/VST ATLAS team. Acknowledgement: Durham University/CASU/WFAU)

The larger of the two black holes has a mass of almost 154 million suns (opens in new tab). The smaller one, which orbits its larger companion at a distance of only 1,600 light-years, is 6.3 million times more massive than our star. 

Supermassive black holes usually sit at the center of large galaxies, and when two galaxies collide and merge, so do the black holes. 

The discovery, scientists said, provides a glimpse into the formation of very large supermassive black holes, but also suggests that many more black holes and merging pairs might be lurking in other nearby galaxies. 

"Our finding implies that there might be many more of these relics of galaxy mergers out there and they may contain many hidden massive black holes that still wait to be found," said Voggel. "It could increase the total number of supermassive black holes known in the local universe by 30%."

Scientists expect to supercharge the search for supermassive black holes and black hole pairs in the upcoming years with the completion of ESO's Extremely Large Telescope (opens in new tab) (ELT) in northern Chile, which is currently expected in 2024. 

"With the HARMONI [High Angular Resolution Monolithic Optical and Near-infrared Integral field spectrograph] instrument on the ELT we will be able to make detections like this considerably further than currently possible," ESO astronomer Steffen Mieske, a co-author of the discovery, said in the statement. 

The discovery was described in a paper (opens in new tab) published on Nov. 30 in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

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Live Science Contributor
Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, video producer and health blogger. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech national TV station. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's degree in Journalism from Prague's Charles University. She is passionate about nutrition, meditation and psychology, and sustainability.