A Group of Black Holes Were Discovered Mysteriously Spinning in the Same Direction

April 13, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Black holes in alignment
Photo credit: Professor Russ Taylor

This is a completely unknown and currently unexplainable phenomenon.

Something extremely peculiar is occurring in deep space. In a region of the distant universe, supermassive black holes are spitting out jets of fast moving plasma (particles in a magnetic field) — all in the same direction. And researchers at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of the West Cape (UWC) in South Africa, may know the reason why.

The results of a new study, published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, discovered, for the first time, an alignment of the jets of galaxies over a large volume of space. This discovery was made possible by a three-year deep radio imaging survey of the radio waves coming from a region called ELAIS-N1 using the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT).

These jets of plasma, known as radio jets, are produced by the supermassive black holes at the centers of the galaxies, and the only way for this alignment to exist is if the black holes are spinning in the same direction, Andrew Russ Taylor, principal author of the study and Director of the recently-launched Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy, explained in a press release.

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“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,” Taylor continued.

Taylor, with study co-author Preshanth Jagannathan, a doctoral student of UCT currently working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico, discovered the alignment after the initial images were made. However, this is not what the two were looking for; the initial investigation was to explore the faintest radio sources in the universe, using the best available telescopes.

The presence of these alignments can shed light on the evolution of the galaxies in relation to large-scale structures and motions that gave rise to the universe.

So what could these large-scale environmental influences during the galaxy evolution have been? Researchers have suggested a couple options: cosmic magnetic fields — fields associated with exotic particles, like axions — or cosmic strings. For now, it remains a mystery, and it is likely to be awhile before technology and theory can explain it.

“This is not obviously expected based on our current understanding of cosmology. It's a bizarre finding,” explained Romeel Dave of UWC and Chair in Cosmology with Multi-Wavelength Data, in the press release.

However, projects capable of differentiating between these two possible explanations are already in the planning stages: The Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the South African MeerKAT array, and the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP).

“GMRT is one of the largest and most sensitive radio telescope arrays in the world,” noted Taylor in the release. “But we really need MeerKAT to make the very sensitive maps, over a very large area and with great detail.”

“We're beginning to understand how the large-scale structure of the universe came about, starting from the Big Bang and growing as a result of disturbances in the early universe, to what we have today,” Taylor continued. “And that helps us explore what the universe of tomorrow will be like.”

Shockingly, no theory has ever predicted this sort of spinning, meaning this is a completely unknown phenomenon and likely presents a major challenge to current theories on the origin of the universe. However, it also provides an opportunity to find out more about the way the universe works.

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