When you’re an astronomer, you come to grips with the fact that the job involves a lot of waiting and watching as advanced detectors spend countless hours observing the cosmos for abnormalities with the potential to teach us more about how the universe works. Opportunities of the aforementioned variety don’t present themselves very often, but a somewhat recent occurrence appears to be getting all the attention as of late.
In a paper published just this past week in The Astrophysical Journal, a team of astronomers describe an unusually massive explosion from the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster around 390 million light-years from Earth. It’s believed to have been caused by none other than a supermassive black hole, and the explosion is purportedly the largest ever recorded – ranked second only to the Big Bang itself.
Image Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Naval Research Lab/Giacintucci, S.; XMM:ESA/XMM; Radio: NCRA/TIFR/GMRTN; Infrared: 2MASS/UMass/IPAC-Caltech/NASA/NSF
"We've seen outbursts in the centers of galaxies before but this one is really, really massive and we don't know why it's so big," explained Melanie Johnston-Holitt, a co-author of the paper from Curtin University’s International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research. "But it happened very slowly—like an explosion in slow motion that took place over hundreds of millions of years."
The explosion was allegedly so powerful that it created a massive cavity in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster’s comprising plasma. The cavity had been observed previously with X-ray-based observatories, but this is the first time astronomers have determined the cause of the massive dent that manifested itself in such an incomprehensibly-large stellar object.
Upon making a second observation with radio telescopes, the data meshed so perfectly with that of the X-ray observatory data that it all but confirmed the presence of a massive explosion. The explosion idea was originally dismissed because of its sheer size, but the latest observations denote that the universe’s incomprehensible mechanisms are capable of humbling power that we do not yet fully understand.
With radio telescopes getting more and more sensitive, astronomers are confident that they’ll discover more anomalies just like this one. These powerful radio telescopes are being used to sweep the cosmos in a different light, and if we’re lucky, perhaps studying these massive explosions could provide valuable insight about how the universe works.