Junior physics major Jenna Harvey was trying to fit the pieces of her research together for hours, but something wasn’t adding up. She thought she was doing something incorrectly before consulting with associate professor of physics and astronomy Anca Constantin, and they came up with a better plan to analyze the data. Eventually, Harvey realized that she was contributing to research that would aid in the discovery of three active galactic nuclei, at the centers of three supermassive black holes, colliding.
This research is part of a collaborative project across several institutions — including George Mason University — that aims to explore the inner workings of galaxies. Harvey said she initially approached Constantin, a researcher on the project, because she found the research compelling. Harvey said she fell in love with astronomy while taking an online introductory class through American Public University before transferring to JMU.
“We didn’t know that we were going to find this wonderful thing, which is a triple actively accreting supermassive black hole system,” Constantin said. “It was great.”
Harvey and Constantin have been observing optical pictures of 15 different pairs of galaxies to find out if they have active galactic nuclei or AGN. Constantin said this is a special center of a galaxy that actively feeds on matter called the supermassive black hole. Supermassive black holes are millions to billions of times the size of the sun, according to a NASA article.
The data they’re observing is provided by the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory in Arizona through Barry Rothberg, a worker at the LBTO and a collaborator on the project. Harvey and Constantin are looking at properties of the gas in these galaxies to determine if there are AGN present. Harvey confirmed the AGN present in what they’ve been calling “Galaxy 1” and “Galaxy 3”, while researchers at George Mason identified the third using data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory in Massachusetts.
“I was pretty excited because I hadn’t felt like I had made much progress over the summer as far as the other pairs of merging galaxies that I had been researching,” Harvey said. “Finding these broad components are important pieces of evidence that point to an AGN, but they’re just one piece of the whole puzzle.”
Harvey had to learn the physics of AGN and programming skills in order to interpret the data. She’s been working on this project since October 2018, but the bulk of her research was conducted last summer. Chris Hughes, head of JMU’s physics and astronomy department, said he considers it necessary for physics majors to get involved in research as students.
“When you get to this point in your career as a scientist, you really need to start realizing that it’s up to you to discover your own things,” Hughes said. “Undergrad research is a great way of doing that.”
Constantin considers the discovery beneficial to the understanding of how galaxies grow and evolve. The standing theory is that the process of two black holes coming together is faster and more efficient when there’s a third involved. This means it’s harder to catch this kind of phenomenon occurring. Constantin said she’s excited that they can provide stronger evidence for this theory.
“Because the process is faster, that means the likelihood of us catching those things happening out there in the sky is even lower,” Constantin said. “There have been candidates before, but I think this paper is the best candidate so far.”
This research can also help in solving the “final parsec problem.” This problem occurs because when two supermassive black holes approach within a few lightyears of each other, they need an extra pull inward to merge due to excess energy they carry in their orbits, according to a NASA article.
They plan on continuing the project and looking at the other 14 galaxy pairs more closely. Hughes said their research was “impressive,” and he said he’s proud of how Harvey and Constantin have represented the department.
“For us as a department, it’s nice because it draws attention to what we do, not only here on campus, but now, throughout the scientific community,” Hughes said. “For Anca and Jenna, it’s well-deserved recognition for them personally for the hard work that they have put into it.”
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