Categories: Radio Astronomy

Astronomers see an Enormous Shockwave, 60 Times Bigger Than the Milky Way

Astronomers have a thing for big explosions and collisions, and it always seems like they are trying to one-up themselves in finding a bigger, brighter one.  There’s a new entrant to that category – an event so big it created a burst of particles over 1 billion years ago that is still visible today and is 60 times bigger than the entire Milky Way.

That shockwave was created by the merger of two galaxy clusters to create a supercluster known as Abell 3667.  This was one of the most energetic events in the universe since the Big Bang, according to calculations by Professor Francesco de Gasperin and his time from the University of Hamburg and INAF.  When it happened over 200 million years ago, it shot out a wave of electrons, similar to how a particle accelerator would.  All these years later, those particles are still traveling at Mach 2.5 (1500 km / s), and when they pass through magnetic fields, they emit radio waves.

Picture of galaxy cluster Abell 3667, where the white color in the center is a concatenation of 550 distinct galaxies, but the red structures represent the shockwaves formed during the creation of this supercluster.
Credit – Francesco de Gasperin, SARAO

Those radio waves are what Dr. de Gasperin and his colleagues observed using a new telescope array in South Africa known as MeerKAT.  Radio signals alone weren’t enough to characterize the shockwave itself, though – the XMM-Newton X-ray observatory also spent some time focused on Abell 3667.

The results of all those observations is a better understanding of the physics of the merger of these galaxy clusters, which were “much more complex than we initially thought,” said Dr. de Gasperin. The shockwaves themselves look like “filaments that trace the location of giant magnetic field lines.”  What is clear from the pictures is that, even when scientists are simply looking for big collisions, the resulting radio images might be awe-inspiring in themselves.

Learn More:
SARAO – Fast and furious: A shock wave that extends for 6.5 million light years
UT – Galaxy Mergers can Boost Star Formation, and it can Also Shut it Down
Astronomy & Astrophysics – MeerKAT view of the diffuse radio sources in Abell 3667 and their
interactions with the thermal plasma

Live Science – Largest shock wave in the universe is ’60 times larger than the Milky Way,’ new study finds

Lead Image:
Image of the larger shockwave front, and an image of the Milky Way for scale.
Credit – Francesco de Gasperin, SARAO

Andy Tomaswick

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