The biggest explosion ever seen in the universe since the Big Bang shows that the universe is ‘a really weird place’.
Scientists have heralded the discovery of an explosion so large that it dwarfs anything ever seen in the universe to date. The international research team spotted the cataclysmic event within a supermassive black hole at the centre of the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, approximately 390m light years from Earth.
This single event released five times more energy than anything ever seen before and was so powerful it punched a cavity in the cluster’s plasma – the super-hot gas surrounding the black hole.
“We’ve seen outbursts in the centres of galaxies before, but this one is really, really massive,” said Prof Melanie Johnston-Hollitt of the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research.
“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.”
It’s ‘a bit like archaeology’
Lead author of the study, Dr Simona Giacintucci of the Naval Research Laboratory in the US, compared the event to the 1980 volcanic eruption of Mount St Helens, where the mountaintop was completely ripped off.
However, the enormous scale of the universe means that the void left by this cosmic explosion could fit 15 Milky Way galaxies in a row.
The team admitted that, on first glance, the idea that it could have been an energetic outburst was dismissed because it was simply too big. However, Johnston-Hollitt said the reality is that the universe “is a weird place”.
To prove it was an explosion, the team looked at the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster with radio telescopes. This showed that the radio data fit inside observations made by x-ray telescopes “like a hand in a glove”, according to the study’s co-author, Dr Maxim Markevitch from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
In describing this discovery, Johnston-Hollitt said it was “a bit like archaeology”.
“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,” she said.
“Going back and doing a multi-wavelength study has really made the difference here.”