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NASA has spotted the “biggest explosion seen in the universe”. As per the US space agency, the record-breaking, gargantuan eruption came from a black hole in a galaxy cluster said nearly 400 million light years away – which to put it simply, is really far away. The discovery was made by NASA scientists using X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton, coupled with radio data sourced from Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) in Australia and India’s Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) – located in near Pune.
This explosion, the biggest ever recorded and thought to be one of the biggest since the Big Bang, was detected in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, about 390 million light years away from the Earth. In the centre of the Ophiuchus cluster, there is a large galaxy that contains a supermassive black hole. Researchers at NASA have argued that this black hole is the source of the eruption.
Galaxy clusters are the largest structures in the Universe, containing thousands of individual galaxies, dark matter, and hot gas held together by gravity. This specific explosion has punched a dent in the cluster’s hot gas that is so massive, researchers say you could fit 15 Milky Ways in it.
“In some ways, this blast is similar to how the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 ripped off the top of the mountain,” Simona Giacintucci of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, and lead author of the study, published in The Astrophysical Journal, said in a NASA press statement. “A key difference is that you could fit fifteen Milky Way galaxies in a row into the crater this eruption punched into the cluster’s hot gas,” she said.
“Although black holes are famous for pulling material toward them, they often expel prodigious amounts of material and energy. This happens when matter falling toward the black hole is redirected into jets, or beams, that blast outward into space and slam into any surrounding material,” the press release explains.
Chandra observations in 2016 had first indicated a massive explosion in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, when scientists reported the discovery of an unusual curved edge in an image of the cluster. “They considered whether this represented part of the wall of a cavity in the hot gas created by jets from the supermassive black hole,” the press release notes. The researchers at the time however discounted this possibility, in part because a lot of energy would have been required for the black hole to create a cavity this large.
The latest study by Giacintucci and her colleagues proves that the 2016 phenomenon was, indeed an enormous explosion. According to NASA, to reach this conclusion, the researchers showed that the curved edge was also detected by the XMM-Newton, confirming the Chandra observation. This is where India’s GMRT also played its part.
The researchers then analysed new radio data from the MWA and the data from the GMRT archives, which showed that the curved edge was indeed part of the wall of a cavity, because it surrounds a region filled with radio emission. This emission came from electrons that accelerated to nearly the speed of light. The acceleration is said to have originated from the supermassive black hole.
“The radio data fit inside the X-rays like a hand in a glove,” co-author of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, Maxim Markevitch said. “This is the clincher that tells us an eruption of unprecedented size occurred here,” he said.
As mentioned, the blast is said to be the biggest ever recorded, producing energy five times greater than the previous record holder – MS 0735+74 – and hundreds and thousands of times greater than typical clusters. The previous record holder was also an explosion created by a supermassive black hole.