A team of NASA astronomers has discovered three supermassive black holes which appear to be on a collision course, a billion light-years away from Earth.

Researcher Shobita Satyapal, from George Mason University, said in a statement that “Dual and triple black holes are exceedingly rare.” Satyapal’s team made the rare discovery using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory telescope, as well as NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer spacecraft and the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona.

The three supermassive black holes will continue to get closer to each other sending out huge ripples in space-time, also known as gravitational waves, which can be detected back to Earth. These gravitational waves are a million times louder than those detected by LIGO. We are unlikely to detect their cosmic waves for billions of years, but the gravitational waves would help us gain a better understanding of the origin and evolution of black holes.

three super massive black holes

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/George Mason Univ./R. Pfeifle et al.; Optical: SDSS & NASA/STScI

Researchers from George Mason University has published their findings in the latest issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

Supermassive Black Holes

“Optical spectra contain a wealth of information about a galaxy,” said co-author Christina Manzano-King from the University of California in the statement. “They are commonly used to identify actively accreting supermassive black holes and can reflect the impact they have on the galaxies they inhabit.”

Supermassive black holes are found at the center of large galaxies, including our own Milky Way. When two galaxies merge, the supermassive black holes gravitate to the center of the newly unified galaxy and begin orbiting one another.

Astrophysicists have predicted that the orbit tightens and the supermassive black holes merger over time. This event produces intense gravitational waves that ripple through space and time.

The biggest promise of this rare event is that it would help astrophysicists learn how much time it takes for black holes to merge. Successful detection of gravitational waves would also help us get a better understanding of how galaxies evolve.