This is the One of the Largest Structures We Know of in the Universe

The Milky Way Galaxy, which measures 100,000 to 180,000 light years (31 – 55 kiloparsecs) in diameter and contains 100 to 400 billion stars, is so immense that it boggles the mind. And yet, when it comes to the large-scale structure of the Universe, our galaxy is merely a drop in the bucket. Looking farther, astronomers have noted that galaxies form clusters, which in turn form superclusters – the largest known structures in the Universe.

The supercluster in which our galaxy resides is known as the Laniakea Supercluster, which spans 500 million light-years. But thanks to a new study by a team of Indian astronomers, a new supercluster has just been identified that puts all previously known ones to shame. Known as Saraswati, this supercluster is over 650 million light years (200 megaparsecs) in diameter, making it one the largest large-scale structures in the known Universe.

The study, which recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal under the title “Saraswati: An Extremely Massive ~ 200 Megaparsec Scale Supercluster, was conducted by astronomers from the Inter University Center for Astronomy & Astrophysics (IUCAA) and the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), with assistance provided by a number of Indian universities.

The distribution of galaxies, from Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), in Saraswati supercluster. Credit: IUCAA

For the sake of their study, the team relied on data obtained by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) to examine the large-scale structure of the Universe. In the past, astronomers have found that the cosmos is hierarchically assembled, with galaxies being arranged in clusters, superclusters, sheets, walls and filaments. These are separated by immense cosmic voids, which together create the vast “Cosmic Web” structure of the Universe.

Superclusters, which are the largest coherent structures in the Cosmic Web, are basically chains of galaxies and galaxy clusters that can extend for hundreds of millions of light years and contain trillions of stars. In the end, the team found a supercluster located about 4 billion (1226 megaparsecs) light-years from Earth – in the constellation Pisces – that is 600 million light-years wide and may contain the mass equivalent of over 20 million billion suns.

They gave this supercluster the name “Saraswati”, the name of an ancient river that played an important role in the emergence of Indian civilization. Saraswait is also the name of a goddess that is worshipped in India today as the keeper of celestial rivers and the goddess of knowledge, music, art, wisdom and nature. This find was particularly surprising, seeing as how Saraswati was older than expected.

Essentially, the supercluster appeared in the SDSS data as it would have when the Universe was roughly 10 billion years old. So not only is Saraswati one of the largest superclusters discovered to date, but its existence raises some serious questions about our current cosmological models. Basically, the predominant model for cosmic evolution does not predict that such a superstructure could exist when the Universe was 10 billion years old.

Diagram of the Lambda-CDM model, which shows cosmic evolution from the Big Bang/Inflation Era and the subsequent expansion of the universe.  Credit: Alex Mittelmann.

Known as the “Cold Dark Matter” model, this theory predicts that small structures (i.e. galaxies) formed first in the Universe and then congregated into larger structures. While variations within this model exist, none predict that something as large as Saraswati could have existed 4 billion years ago. Because of this, the discovery may require astronomers to rethink their theories of how the Universe became what it is today.

To put it simply, the Saraswati supercluster formed at a time when Dark Energy began to dominate structure formation, replacing gravitation as the main force shaping cosmic evolution. As Joydeep Bagchi, a researcher from IUCAA and the lead author of the paper, and co-author Shishir Sankhyayan (of IISER) explained in a IUCAA press release:

‘’We were very surprised to spot this giant wall-like supercluster of galaxies… This supercluster is clearly embedded in a large network of cosmic filaments traced by clusters and large voids. Previously only a few comparatively large superclusters have been reported, for example the ‘Shapley Concentration’ or the ‘Sloan Great Wall’ in the nearby universe, while the ‘Saraswati’ supercluster is far more distant one. Our work will help to shed light on the perplexing question; how such extreme large scale, prominent matter-density enhancements had formed billions of years in the past when the mysterious Dark Energy had just started to dominate structure formation.’’

As such, the discovery of this most-massive of superclusters may shed light on how and when Dark Energy played an important role in supercluster formation. It also opens the door to other cosmological theories that are in competition with the CDM model, which may offer more consistent explanations as to why Saraswati could exist 10 billion years after the Big Bang.

One thing is clear thought: this discovery represents an exciting opportunity for new research into cosmic formation and evolution. And with the aid of new instruments and observational facilities, astronomers will be able to look at Saraswait and other superclusters more closely in the coming years and study just how they effect their cosmic environment.

Further Reading: IUCAA, The Astrophysical Journal

At the Largest Scales, Our Milky Way Galaxy is in the Middle of Nowhere

The Millenium Simulation created this image of the large-scale structure of the Universe, showing filaments and voids within the cosmic structure. According to a new study from the University of Wisconsin, our Milky Way is situated in a huge void in the cosmic structure. The Millennium Simulation is a project of the Max Planck Supercomputing Center in Germany. Image: Millennium Simulation Project

Ever since Galileo pointed his telescope at Jupiter and saw moons in orbit around that planet, we began to realize we don’t occupy a central, important place in the Universe. In 2013, a study showed that we may be further out in the boondocks than we imagined. Now, a new study confirms it: we live in a void in the filamental structure of the Universe, a void that is bigger than we thought.

In 2013, a study by University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Amy Barger and her student Ryan Keenan showed that our Milky Way galaxy is situated in a large void in the cosmic structure. The void contains far fewer galaxies, stars, and planets than we thought. Now, a new study from University of Wisconsin student Ben Hoscheit confirms it, and at the same time eases some of the tension between different measurements of the Hubble Constant.

The void has a name; it’s called the KBC void for Keenan, Barger and the University of Hawaii’s Lennox Cowie. With a radius of about 1 billion light years, the KBC void is seven times larger than the average void, and it is the largest void we know of.

The large-scale structure of the Universe consists of filaments and clusters of normal matter separated by voids, where there is very little matter. It’s been described as “Swiss cheese-like.” The filaments themselves are made up of galaxy clusters and super-clusters, which are themselves made up of stars, gas, dust and planets. Finding out that we live in a void is interesting on its own, but its the implications it has for Hubble’s Constant that are even more interesting.

Hubble’s Constant is the rate at which objects move away from each other due to the expansion of the Universe. Dr. Brian Cox explains it in this short video.

The problem with Hubble’s Constant, is that you get a different result depending on how you measure it. Obviously, this is a problem. “No matter what technique you use, you should get the same value for the expansion rate of the universe today,” explains Ben Hoscheit, the Wisconsin student who presented his analysis of the KBC void on June 6th at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. “Fortunately, living in a void helps resolve this tension.”

There are a couple ways of measuring the expansion rate of the Universe, known as Hubble’s Constant. One way is to use what are known as “standard candles.” Supernovae are used as standard candles because their luminosity is so well-understood. By measuring their luminosity, we can determine how far away the galaxy they reside in is.

Another way is by measuring the CMB, the Cosmic Microwave Background. The CMB is the left over energy imprint from the Big Bang, and studying it tells us the state of expansion in the Universe.

This is a map of the observable Universe from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Orange areas show higher density of galaxy clusters and filaments. Image: Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
This is a map of the observable Universe from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Orange areas show higher density of galaxy clusters and filaments. Image: Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

The two methods can be compared. The standard candle approach measures more local distances, while the CMB approach measures large-scale distances. So how does living in a void help resolve the two?

Measurements from inside a void will be affected by the much larger amount of matter outside the void. The gravitational pull of all that matter will affect the measurements taken with the standard candle method. But that same matter, and its gravitational pull, will have no effect on the CMB method of measurement.

“One always wants to find consistency, or else there is a problem somewhere that needs to be resolved.” – Amy Barger, University of Hawaii, Dept. of Physics and Astronomy

Hoscheit’s new analysis, according to Barger, the author of the 2013 study, shows that Keenan’s first estimations of the KBC void, which is shaped like a sphere with a shell of increasing thickness made up of galaxies, stars and other matter, are not ruled out by other observational constraints.

“It is often really hard to find consistent solutions between many different observations,” says Barger, an observational cosmologist who also holds an affiliate graduate appointment at the University of Hawaii’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. “What Ben has shown is that the density profile that Keenan measured is consistent with cosmological observables. One always wants to find consistency, or else there is a problem somewhere that needs to be resolved.”

Missing Light Crisis: The Universe Seems a Little Too Dark

There are few moments more breathtaking than standing beneath a brilliant starry sky. Thousands of small specks of light mark only the beginning of the vast cosmic arena, with its unimaginable vistas of time and space. The Milky Way, wrapping above in a cosmic sheet of colors and patterns, also hints that there’s more than meets the eye.

Most of us long for these dark nights, far away from the city lights. But a new study suggests the Universe is a little too dark.

The vast reaches of empty space are bridged by filaments of hydrogen and helium. But there’s a disconnect between how bright the large-scale structure of the Universe is expected to be and how bright it actually is.

In a recent study, a team of astronomers led by Juna Kollmeier from the Carnegie Institute for Science found the light from known populations of stars and quasars is not nearly enough to explain observations of intergalactic hydrogen.

In a brightly lit Universe, intergalactic hydrogen will be easily destroyed by energetic photons, meaning images of the large-scale structure will actually appear dimmer. Whereas in a dim Universe, there are fewer photons to destroy the intergalactic hydrogen and images will appear brighter.

Hubble Space Telescope observations of the large-scale structure show a brightly lit Universe. But supercomputer simulations using only the known sources of ultraviolet light produces a dimly lit Universe. The difference is a stunning 400 percent.

Computer simulations of intergalactic hydrogen in a "dimly lit" universe (left) and a "brightly lit" universe (right) that has five times more of the energetic photons that destroy neutral hydrogen atoms. Hubble Space Telescope observations of hydrogen absorption match the picture on the right, but using only the known astronomical sources of ultraviolet light produces the much thicker structures on the left, and a severe mismatch with the observations. Image is credited to Ben Oppenheimer and Juna Kollmeier.
Computer simulations of intergalactic hydrogen in a “dimly lit” universe (left) and a “brightly lit” universe (right) that has five times more of the energetic photons that destroy neutral hydrogen atoms. Image Credit: Ben Oppenheimer / Juna Kollmeier.

Observations indicate that the ionizing photons from hot, young stars are almost always absorbed by gas in the host galaxy, so they never escape to affect intergalactic hydrogen. The necessary culprit could be the known number of quasars, which is far lower than needed to produce the required light.

“Either our accounting of the light from galaxies and quasars is very far off, or there’s some other major source of ionizing photons that we’ve never recognized,” said Kollmeier in a press release. “We are calling this missing light the photon underproduction crisis. But it’s the astronomers who are in crisis — somehow or other, the universe is getting along just fine.”

Strangely, this mismatch only appears in the nearby, relatively well-studied cosmos. In the early Universe, everything adds up.

“The simulations fit the data beautifully in the early universe, and they fit the local data beautifully if we’re allowed to assume that this extra light is really there,” said coauthor Ben Oppenheimer from the University of Colorado. “It’s possible the simulations do not reflect reality, which by itself would be a surprise, because intergalactic hydrogen is the component of the Universe that we think we understand the best.”

So astronomers are attempting to shed light on the missing light.

“The most exciting possibility is that the missing photons are coming from some exotic new source, not galaxies or quasars at all,” said coauthor Neal Katz from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The team is exploring these new sources with vigor. It’s possible that there could be an undiscovered population of quasars in the nearby Universe. Or more exotically, the photons could be created from annihilating dark matter.

“The great thing about a 400 percent discrepancy is that you know something is really wrong,” said coauthor David Weinberg from Ohio State University. “We still don’t know for sure what it is, but at least one thing we thought we knew about the present day universe isn’t true.”

The results were published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and are available online.