Exploring the Universe, Extending Shared Resources, and Expanding Mason’s Scientific Brand

A Remarkable Chance Encounter:

Thanks to happenstance and a 4-VA grant to investigate the origins of super massive black holes (SMBH), Professor of Physics and Astronomy Shobita Satyapal and her team discovered a noteworthy find:  A distant colliding galaxy hosting a binary active galactic nucleus (AGN).

This significant revelation is important because although there are strong theoretical rationales why binary AGN should exist, finding them is extremely rare – as only a handful have currently been identified with separations of less than a few tens of light years apart.  With Satyapal’s sighting, a supposition was developed that a significant population of binary AGNs may be hidden from optical wavelengths.  A heavenly breakthrough. 

It’s where you look and how you look

Thus begat a concerted collaborative effort between Satyapal’s group at Mason, with their expertise in analysis of X-ray data; Dr. Anca Constantin at Madison who established a program to study the reduction of data from the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Arizona; and Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt from UVA —  an expert on very large array (VLA) data.

Their goals?

  • To determine the true frequency of binary AGNs and to estimate their black hole masses
  • To compare AGN incidences and properties to host galaxy and merger potential
  • To compare infrared-selected binary AGNs to optically-identified binary AGNs

Then, the search was on to find binary AGNs in a sample of 15 colliding galaxies for which the team secured highly competitive Chandra and XMM-Newton observations. Each participating university brought on both graduates and undergraduates to assist in data analysis and modeling.

Their results?

They found a notable eight additional binary AGNs in their sample of 15 — increasing the fraction of known binary AGNs in the universe at these close separations by 30%! 

What’s more, the study resulted in a NASA press release recognizing Mason; an accepted publication in the Astrophysical Journal (with another in the works).  Further, the collaboration encouraged an undergrad from Madison to move forward into Mason’s graduate program — helping build an even stronger bridge between the two institutions.

“This 4-VA funding gave us the seed money which allowed us to do the exploring we needed at the outset of this project,” explains Satyapal.  “What began as a lucky accident has morphed in to a statewide study which has received national and international attention and garnered additional research dollars – for that we are very grateful!”