Newly discovered jewel galaxy cluster is largest ever detected

19 Dec 2014

The Gioiello galaxy cluster. Composite image using X-ray data from NASA/CXC/INAF/P.Tozzi, et al; optical data from NAOJ/Subaru and ESO/VLT; and infrared data from ESA/Herschel

Astronomers have weighed up the data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory to provide the first determination of the mass and other properties of a very young galaxy cluster about 9.6bn light years away.

It turns out that the newly discovered galaxy cluster, which has an age of 800m years or younger, is the biggest one scientists have ever detected.

The galaxy cluster measures about 6.2m light years across and was found in the Cetus constellation in the Northern Hemisphere. It was first detected by the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton observatory, and what followed was the deepest X-ray observation yet made on a cluster beyond 8bn light years away.

The researchers gathered enough X-ray data from Chandra and combined this with scientific models to find an accurate weight of the cluster, which is said to be a colossal 400trn times the mass of the Sun.

Scientists believe the young cluster formed about 3.3bn years after the Big Bang.

“Finding this enormous galaxy cluster at this early epoch means that there could be more out there,” said Paolo Tozzi of the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Florence, Italy, who led the new study. “This kind of information could have an impact on our understanding of how the large-scale structure of the Universe formed and evolved.”

Gioiello in the crown

The composite image above shows the gigantic galaxy cluster, which has been given the catchy name of XDCP J0044.0-2033, though it’s easier to go by its nickname, ‘Gioiello’ (the Italian word for ‘jewel’).

Seeing the image, you can discern the rationale behind this moniker. The X-rays from Chandra appears in purple, while the infrared data from the ESA’s Hershel Space Telescope appears as large red halos around some galaxies, and optical data from the Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii is red, green and blue. The result is an image of glowing jewel tones.

The name was also inspired by the location of the first meeting to discuss Chandra data by the research team, which took place in Villa il Gioiello, Italy, the last residence of prominent Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei.

Evolution of the universe

Massive clusters such as Gioiello and El Gordo – another super-size galaxy cluster located 7bn light years away – don’t exactly fit with the best current model for the evolution of the universe, and these findings suggest that the theory needs revision.

“The hint that there might be problems with the standard model of cosmology is interesting, but we need bigger and deeper samples of clusters before we can tell if there’s a real problem,” said James Jee of the University of California in Davis, co-author of the study.

The results of this research will be published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.