Astronomers observing the universe have detected some massive bursts of energy over the years, but nothing compares with the blast recently spotted by scientists at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research. The explosion some 390 million light-years away is the largest ever recorded. The epicenter of the eruption appears to be a supermassive black hole, but the team is still puzzling over why it was so gigantic.
The explosion came from the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster. Like most large galaxies (including our own), the one at the epicenter of the blast has a supermassive black hole in the center. Astronomers have seen energy bursts from black holes in the past, some of which were staggeringly powerful even from millions of light-years distant. This one didn’t just edge out the previous record-holder, though. The Ophiuchus blast was five times more powerful than the next most powerful explosion. So, we’re lucky this explosion happened in a galaxy safely on the other side of the universe.
According to the team, the burst was so powerful that it punched a hole in the cocoon of plasma surrounding the black hole. That hole was about as large as 15 Milky Way galaxies, which really drives home how enormous the explosion was. The X-ray energy pouring out of the fissure was intense enough that we could see it here on Earth. The researchers used four telescopes to observe those signals, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the ESA’s XMM-Newton X-ray space observatory.
In addition to being massive, the explosion took place very slowly over the course of hundreds of millions of years. Tracing the X-ray signal back pointed the way to the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster. It’s a bit like archaeology,” Johnston-Hollitt said. “We’ve been given the tools to dig deeper with low-frequency radio telescopes so we should be able to find more outbursts like this now.”
Initially, the team dismissed the idea the X-ray signal came from an energetic outburst because it would be “too big.” That turned out to be exactly what it was. It’s unclear what made the black hole expel so much energy, but the team is attempting to find out. They’re not conducting more observations of the blast’s origin using more antennas, which should increase the sensitivity of readings by at least ten times.
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