The cosmic blast that wove a galaxy’s beadwork

Credit: arXiv (2023).

Astronomers have uncovered evidence of a colossal eruption from a black hole, one of the most powerful ever recorded, shedding light on a cosmic mystery.

This monumental event, occurring billions of years ago, might explain the unusual arrangement of star clusters around two giant galaxies, creating a pattern that looks like beads on a string.

The stage for this discovery is set in a galaxy cluster known as SDSS J1531+3414, or simply SDSS J1531, situated 3.8 billion light-years away from Earth.

This cluster is a bustling metropolis of hundreds of galaxies, enveloped in vast clouds of hot gas and the elusive dark matter. At its heart, two massive galaxies are caught in a dramatic collision.

Encircling these celestial titans is a remarkable sight: 19 enormous star superclusters strung along an “S” shaped formation, reminiscent of beads threaded on a string.

To unravel the origins of this striking pattern, a team of astronomers turned to a suite of telescopes, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR), a radio telescope, employing X-ray, radio, and optical data.

Their investigations led to the discovery of a monumental eruption in SDSS J1531, tracing back to a supermassive black hole at the center of one of the galaxies. This black hole unleashed a jet of energy so powerful that it carved out a vast cavity in the surrounding space.

Osase Omoruyi, who spearheaded the study at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, likened the discovery of this cavity to uncovering a buried fossil, providing a glimpse into an event nearly 200 million years prior in the cluster’s history.

Evidence of this ancient cavity was found in the form of “wings” of bright X-ray emission, observed by Chandra. These wings outline the cavity’s edge, with the space in between filled by the less dense gas of the cavity itself.

LOFAR’s detection of radio waves from the remnants of the jet’s energy particles further corroborates the existence of this massive explosion.

The team also found pockets of cold and warm gas near the cavity’s opening, detected by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Gemini North Telescope.

It’s believed that some of the hot gas pushed away by the black hole’s eruption cooled down to form these gas pockets.

The merging of the two galaxies likely compressed this gas into curved paths, prompting the formation of the star clusters in their unique “beads on a string” arrangement.

Grant Tremblay, a co-author of the study, marveled at the sequence of events that unfolded across immense distances and timescales, from the tiny black hole to the formation of a cavity nearly 500,000 light-years wide, eventually leading to the birth of young star clusters.

Although the study currently detects radio waves and a cavity from only one jet—black holes typically emit two jets in opposite directions—the researchers suspect remnants of a second jet.

However, without a corresponding cavity, the evidence remains elusive. Further observations with Chandra and LOFAR are planned to solidify their findings and hopefully uncover the missing cavity.

Published in The Astrophysical Journal, this research not only offers a window into the dynamic processes shaping galaxies and clusters but also underscores the profound influence of black holes on their cosmic surroundings.

The research findings can be found in The Astrophysical Journal.

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