Astronomers taking a second look at a distant galaxy have found it is actually a pair of colliding galaxies, each harboring a supermassive black hole at its center. The existence of the black holes, which were fully formed less than 2 billion years after the big bang, suggests that these giant objects could have been common in the early universe. If so, they must have had a bigger impact on the evolution of galaxies than previously thought, and they might have influenced the origin of life on distant planets.
Ever since the first black hole, Cygnus X-1, was discovered, astronomers have been adding to the rolls of these strange cosmic objects, whose tremendous gravity can capture even light. The heavyweights of the group are supermassive black holes, which cram masses equaling a million suns or more into a space much smaller than our solar system. These monsters are supposed to take billions of years to form, because they accumulate all matter or objects unfortunate enough to pass too close–including other black holes. Supermassive black holes not only shape their host galaxy but also can determine its potential habitability, depending on whether they form quietly or flood the vicinity with lethal radiation and destructive jets of ionized gas.