A team of astronomers at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Australia made the discovery using telescopes around the world, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray space observatory. They published their findings in ‘The Astrophysical Journal’. They detected evidence of a massive explosion in space that’s five times bigger than anything that has ever been observed before. It’s believed to have emanated from a supermassive black hole about 390 million light years from Earth. This eruption is thought to have left a huge dent in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster. “I’ve tried to put this explosion into human terms and it’s really, really difficult,” astrophysicist and study co-author Melanie Johnston-Hollitt told the ‘BBC’. “The best I can do is tell you that if this explosion continued to occur over the 240 million years of the outburst - which it probably didn’t, but anyway - it’d be like setting off 20 billion, billion megaton TNT explosions every thousandth of a second for the entire 240 million years. So that’s incomprehensibly big. Huge.” Lead author Simona Giacintucci of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, compared the explosion to one of the most intense volcanic eruptions in American history: “In some ways, this blast is similar to how the eruption of Mount St Helens (volcano) in 1980 ripped off the top of the mountain.” Johnston-Hollitt added: “To give it another dimension; [the cavity] is about one-and-a-half-million light-years across. So the hole that was punched in the surrounding space in the hot X-ray plasma would take light itself one-and-a-half-million years to traverse. It’s absolutely enormous the amount of energy that we’re talking about here.”
Switching telescopes leads to discovery
X-ray telescopes had previously observed the cavity in the cluster plasma. However, scientists originally rejected the idea that it could have been triggered by an energetic outburst. The reason was that it would have been inconceivably big. They only understood what they had discovered when examining the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster with radio telescopes. “The radio data fit inside the X-rays like a hand in a glove,” co-author Maxim Markevitch, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, told ‘CNN’. “This is the clincher that tells us an eruption of unprecedented size occurred here.” “As is often the case in astrophysics we really need multiwavelength observations to truly understand the physical processes at work,” noted Johnston-Hollitt. “Having the combined information from X-ray and radio telescopes has revealed this extraordinary source, but more data will be needed to answer the many remaining questions this object poses.” “This has been like discovering a dinosaur, with just a little piece (the unusual X-ray edge) sticking out at first and then suddenly a new kind of creature coming out from the ground,” wrote Giacintucci in a blog post on NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory site.