Astronomers discover biggest known explosion in the history of the universe
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Astronomers discover biggest known explosion in the history of the universe

Cosmic blast in galaxy cluster some 390 million light years from earth opened a gas crater the size of 15 Milky Way galaxies

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

An extremely powerful eruption in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, some 390 million light-years from Earth. (X-ray: NASA/CXC/Naval Research Lab/Giacintucci, S.; XMM:ESA/XMM; Radio: NCRA/TIFR/GMRTN; Infrared: 2MASS/UMass/IPAC-Caltech/NASA/NSF)
An extremely powerful eruption in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, some 390 million light-years from Earth. (X-ray: NASA/CXC/Naval Research Lab/Giacintucci, S.; XMM:ESA/XMM; Radio: NCRA/TIFR/GMRTN; Infrared: 2MASS/UMass/IPAC-Caltech/NASA/NSF)

An international team of astronomers said they discovered the biggest explosion in the history of the universe.

The cosmic blast likely originated in a supermassive black hole in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, some 390 million light years from earth.

Galaxy clusters contain hundreds to thousands of galaxies, bound together by gravity, and are some of the largest known structures in the universe.

The outburst of energy happened slowly, likely taking place over hundreds of millions of years, and is no longer exploding. It was five times bigger than the previous record holder.

It was powerful enough to blast a massive hole in the super-heated gas surrounding the black hole, called the cluster plasma. The cavity in the cluster plasma is the size of 15 Milky Way galaxies, or 1.5 million light years across.

“We’ve seen outbursts in the centers of galaxies before but this one is really, really massive,” Prof. Melanie Johnson-Hollitt, of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy in Australia, said in a statement Thursday. “We don’t know why it’s so big.”

“People were skeptical because the size of outburst,” she said. “But it really is that. The universe is a weird place.”

Black holes are known for sucking material into themselves, but they can also eject huge amounts of energy and material when matter moving toward them gets redirected outward, potentially smashing into other material.

The researchers identified the blast using four telescopes, two on satellites — NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton — and two on land, in western Australia and India. Two of the telescopes use radio data, and two use X-rays.

Chandra detected evidence of the explosion in the galaxy cluster in 2016, but researchers doubted that it was an explosion because it was so big. The scientists determined that it was in fact a blast using new radio data, NASA said.

“The radio data fit inside the X-rays like a hand in a glove,” said study co-author Maxim Markevitch of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “This is the clincher that tells us an eruption of unprecedented size occurred here.”

“Having the combined information from X-ray and radio telescopes has revealed this extraordinary source, but more data will be needed to answer the many remaining questions this object poses,” Johnson-Hollitt said. “We’ve been given the tools to dig deeper with low frequency radio telescopes so we should be able to find more outbursts like this now.”

The team first published its findings on Thursday in the peer-reviewed scientific periodical The Astrophysical Journal. The study’s lead author was Simona Giacintucci of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC.

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