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A close nuclear black-hole pair in the spiral galaxy NGC 3393

Abstract

The current picture of galaxy evolution1 advocates co-evolution of galaxies and their nuclear massive black holes, through accretion and galactic merging. Pairs of quasars, each with a massive black hole at the centre of its galaxy, have separations of 6,000 to 300,000 light years (refs 2 and 3; 1 parsec = 3.26 light years) and exemplify the first stages of this gravitational interaction. The final stages of the black-hole merging process, through binary black holes and final collapse into a single black hole with gravitational wave emission, are consistent with the sub-light-year separation inferred from the optical spectra4 and light-variability5 of two such quasars. The double active nuclei of a few nearby galaxies with disrupted morphology and intense star formation (such as NGC 6240 with a separation6 of about 2,600 light years and Mrk 463 with a separation7 of about 13,000 light years between the nuclei) demonstrate the importance of major mergers of equal-mass spiral galaxies in this evolution; such mergers lead to an elliptical galaxy8, as in the case of the double-radio-nucleus elliptical galaxy 0402+379 (with a separation of about 24 light years between the nuclei)9. Minor mergers of a spiral galaxy with a smaller companion should be a more common occurrence, evolving into spiral galaxies with active massive black-hole pairs10, but have hitherto not been seen. Here we report the presence of two active massive black holes, separated by about 490 light years, in the Seyfert11 galaxy NGC 3393 (50 Mpc, about 160 million light years). The regular spiral morphology and predominantly old circum-nuclear stellar population12 of this galaxy, and the closeness of the black holes embedded in the bulge, provide a hitherto missing observational point to the study of galaxy/black hole evolution. Comparison of our observations with current theoretical models of mergers suggests that they are the result of minor merger evolution10.

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Figure 1: Chandra ACIS-S images.
Figure 2: X-ray spectra.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by a NASA grant (with Principal Investigator J.W.). We thank P. Gandhi for discussions on the 13 μm observations. We used the NASA ADS and NED services. This work includes archival Chandra and Hubble Space Telescope data. We acknowledge discussions with T. Di Matteo and L. Mayer at the Aspen Center for Physics 2011 Summer Program.

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Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

G.F. suggested the possibility of double active galactic nuclei, designed the data analysis approach, directed the interpretation of the results and wrote the paper. J.W. is the Principal Investigator of the Chandra proposal, performed the data analysis and participated in the interpretation of the results. M.E. and G.R. contributed to the interpretation of the results and revisions of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to G. Fabbiano.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Fabbiano, G., Wang, J., Elvis, M. et al. A close nuclear black-hole pair in the spiral galaxy NGC 3393. Nature 477, 431–434 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10364

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