A binary supermassive black hole with the shine of a trillion Suns

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… a blazar once shone with the brightness of a trillion suns.

That galaxy is OJ 287, and it is located 3.5 billion light-years away in the constellation of Cancer. In other words, we are witnessing the ancient past. We are seeing the galaxy as it was 3.5 billion years ago. The source of the blazar (extremely high-energy quasar) is the interaction of two supermassive black holes that reside in its center. The larger of the two is a staggering 18.35 billion solar masses. The smaller companion, itself having the mass of 150 million Suns, orbits the larger companion every 11-12 years. As its orbit is inclined to the ecliptic, however, it crosses the larger companion’s accretion disk twice during each orbit. Relativistic jets of superheated ionized gases are produced when material from the disk falls into the spinning black hole at close to the speed of light. The black hole’s intense gravity distorts space-time near the poles such that its magnetic field is twisted outward, like the barrel of a gun. That barrel happens to coincide with our line of sight, resulting in a magnificent blazar.

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The intrinsic brightness of the outbursts, which last for several days, peaks at more than a trillion times the luminosity of the Sun. That is many times brighter than our entire galaxy!

But then again, everything is super-sized with these black holes. In addition to its mind-boggling mass, the event horizon (spherical boundary where light cannot escape) for the larger black hole is approximately 108 billion kilometers (9 times the size of Pluto’s orbit). Its accretion disk stretches further trillions of kilometers. The smaller companion’s event horizon is about 900 million kilometers (about the size of the asteroid belt). The orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars would fit comfortably inside.

Describing black holes in terms of their event horizons helps us visualize their apparent sizes, but it doesn’t represent reality. In reality, black holes only have three externally observable parameters – mass, electric charge, and angular momentum. That is because all the matter in a black hole is compressed into a single point, a singularity. In other words, black holes have zero volume, and thus are infinitely dense.

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As amazing as this blazar is, it will not last forever. In about 10,000 years, the smaller black hole’s orbit will decay (orbital energy lost via gravitational radiation) to the point where it will eventually merge with its larger companion. We think of this event as a future event since we have not seen it yet, but in actuality, this merger has already happened ~ 3.49999 billion years ago.

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