While studying a distant galaxy cluster, scientists from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research have discovered the biggest explosion in the history of the Universe. They detected that a blast is coming from a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy hundreds of millions of light-years away.
The explosion in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster was immensely energetic: it released five times more energy than the previous record-holder since the Big Bang.
Professor Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, from the Curtin University, said, “We’ve seen outbursts in the centers of galaxies before, but this one is massive. And we don’t know why it’s so big.”
“But it happened very slowly — like an explosion in slow motion that took place over hundreds of millions of years. The explosion occurred in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, about 390 million light-years from Earth. It was so powerful it punched a cavity in the cluster plasma — the super-hot gas surrounding the black hole.”
Lead author of the study Dr. Simona Giacintucci, from the Naval Research Laboratory in the United States, said the blast was similar to the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, which ripped the top off the mountain.
“The difference is that you could fit 15 Milky Way galaxies in a row into the crater. This eruption punched into the cluster’s hot gas.”
Professor Johnston-Hollitt said the cavity in the cluster plasma had been seen previously with X-ray telescopes.
But scientists initially dismissed the idea that an energetic outburst could have caused it because it would have been too big.
“People were skeptical because of the size of outbursts,” she said. “But it is that. The Universe is a weird place.”
The discovery was made using four telescopes; NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, ESA’s XMM-Newton, the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) in Western Australia and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in India.
Professor Johnston-Hollitt said, “The finding underscores the importance of studying the Universe at different wavelengths. Going back and doing a multi-wavelength study has made the difference here.”
Professor Johnston-Hollitt said the finding is likely to be the first of many.
“We made this discovery with Phase 1 of the MWA when the telescope had 2048 antennas pointed towards the sky. We’re soon going to be gathering observations with 4096 antennas, which should be ten times more sensitive.”
“I think that’s pretty exciting.”
- S. Giacintucci, Discovery of a giant radio fossil in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster. DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/ab6a9d