Black holes constantly spew out jets of radio emissions, but they’ve never been known to do so in unison. That’s why it was so puzzling when researchers at the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape noticed a bunch of supermassive black holes in a distant region of the universe that all seemed to spin out their radio jets in the same direction. The phenomenon, which has never been observed before, left the scientists scratching their heads.

The researchers, who just published their findings in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, hadn’t been looking for the black holes. They’d simply been carrying out a three-year-long deep radio imaging survey of the distant region known as ELAIS-N1 to explore faint radio sources in the universe using the South African MeerKAT radio telescope and the Square Kilometre Array, one of the biggest scientific instruments in the world. But when they noticed the mysteriously aligned jets, they knew they’d come across something strange.

The white circles in the image on the left point out the black holes spewing radio jets in alignment.

The only way the radio jets of multiple black holes could align is if they were all spinning in the same direction. But all of the black holes were formed from individual stars too far apart to have influenced each other’s alignment. The force governing them had to be much greater — and older.

Explaining his findings in a release, the study’s principal author Andrew Russ Taylor, Ph.D., explained that the alignment of the black holes is probably caused by an overall spin in the structure of this region of space, triggered by fluctuations of primordial matter in the early universe, way before galaxies even formed.

In this snapshot of the region ELAIS-N1, the bright dots are double-lobed radio galaxies; the fainter sources are radio emission from star-forming galaxies. 

”Since these black holes don’t know about each other, or have any way of exchanging information or influencing each other directly over such vast scales, this spin alignment must have occurred during the formation of the galaxies in the early universe,” he said.

Explaining what caused those original fluctuations in that region of space is another mystery altogether. The authors speculate that they could have been triggered by large-scale environmental influences such as cosmic magnetic fields, cosmic strings, or even fields associated with “exotic particles” such as axions.

Romeo Dave, Ph.D., another radio emission specialist not involved in the study, admitted in a release that the finding has taken the cosmology community by surprise.

”This is not obviously expected based on our current understanding of cosmology,” he said. “It’s a bizarre finding.”

Photos via A.R. Taylor, P. Jagannathan