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Merger could warp universe

TWO black holes drifting towards each other will merge in millions of years with a burst of gravitational waves that could warp the very fabric of space.

Scientists said yesterday the Chandra X-ray Observatory has found the first evidence that two immense black holes can co-exist in the same galaxy and that they are moving towards each other for an eventual merger.

The double black holes were found in a bright, highly active galaxy known as NGC6240, about 400 million light years from the Earth.

Astronomers studied NGC6240 because it produced unexplained bursts of X-rays that
appeared to come from one of two nuclei at the galactic centre. Images collected by radio, infra-red and optical observations showed two bright spots, but did not pinpoint the origin of the X-rays.

When Chandra, with its sensitive X-ray detectors, focused on the nuclei, astronomers were surprised to find that both black holes were active.

Stefanie Komossa, of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, said the find "supports the idea that black holes can grow to enormous masses in the centres of galaxies by merging with other black holes".

The black holes are about 3000 light years apart and are expected to merge in the next few hundred million years, the researchers said.

The consequent gravitational ripples could cause minute changes in the distance between any two points in the universe.