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Kaboom! Astronomers detect the universe’s biggest explosion since the Big Bang

Ophiuchus galaxy cluster (NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team/WikiCommons)

Scientists have discovered the biggest explosion seen in the universe since the Big Bang, a new study reports. The explosion took place at the center of a galaxy that’s about 390 million light years from Earth.

“We’ve seen outbursts in the centers of galaxies before, but this one is really, really massive,” said study co-author Melanie Johnston-Hollitt of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, in a statement. “And we don’t know why it’s so big.”

She added that the explosion happened very slowly, taking place over hundreds of millions of years. It also released five times more energy than the previous record holder.

The unrivaled outburst was detected in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster. Galaxy clusters are the largest structures in the universe held together by gravity, containing thousands of individual galaxies, dark matter and hot gas, NASA said.

In the center of the Ophiuchus cluster, there is a large galaxy that contains a supermassive black hole. Researchers think that the source of the gigantic eruption is this black hole.

“In some ways, this blast is similar to how the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 ripped off the top of the mountain,” said study lead author Simona Giacintucci of the Naval Research Laboratory. “A key 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.”

This study follows up on a 2016 study by astronomer Norman Werner that announced the discovery of that “crater,” which scientists call a cavity in the galaxy cluster.

“I was really happy when I saw these results,” said Werner, writing in a blog post about the new study. “In our (2016) paper we considered the possibility that the feature is a result of a record-breaking black hole outburst, but we discounted it as unlikely.

“This is one of the nearest galaxy clusters and it appeared to be too much of a coincidence to see such an outburst in our cosmic backyard,” Werner wrote. “Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence and the observation reported in this paper provides the evidence that we lacked.”

The discovery was made using four telescopes, two in orbit around the Earth, and two ground-based telescopes in Australia and India.

The new study was published Friday in The Astrophysical Journal.


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