“We’ve seen eruptions in the centres of galaxies before, but this one is really, really massive.”
Scientists at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research have detected the largest explosion ever seen in the universe since the Big Bang.
The bang originated from a supermassive black hole from the middle of the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster about 390 million light-years from Earth.
“We’ve seen eruptions in the centres of galaxies before, but this one is really, really massive,” Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, a lecturer at the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research and co-writer of the research paper uploaded to preprint collection arXiv previously this month, said in an announcement. “And we don’t know why it’s so huge.”
To make the finding, the researchers used four telescopes around the globe, including the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray space observatory and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.
It was such a fierce explosion that it cut a hole in the cluster plasma, the hot gas that encircles black holes, as seen through X-ray telescope observations of the cluster.
Simona Giacintucci, lead author and researcher from the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC and lead author, matched the blast to the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens — one of the most intense volcanic eruptions in US history.
“The difference is that you could fix 15 Milky Way galaxies in a row into the crater this explosion punched into the cluster’s hot gas,” Giacintucci said in the statement.
The explosion was not only gigantic but also very slow.
“It happened very gradually — like a burst in slow motion that happened over hundreds of millions of years,” Johnston-Hollitt explained.
Scientists at NASA were able to verify the exceptional blast. “The radio data fix inside the X-rays like a hand in a glove,” said author Maxim Markevitch from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in the statement. “This is the clincher that informs us an eruption of unprecedented size happened here.”
The discovery could open doors for more discoveries like it.
“It’s slightly like archaeology,” Johnston-Hollitt said. “We’ve been given the apparatuses to dig deeper with low-frequency radio telescopes so we should be able to find more bursts like this now.”
The team is now looking to make more observations with double the number of antennas, improving sensitivity tenfold, according to Johnston-Hollitt.