2020 has really started off with a bang, for numerous reasons. But now we have a new, literally explosive one to add to the list: An international team of astronomers has just announced it’s discovered, in a faraway galaxy, the largest explosion that humankind has ever laid eyes on. And, as with many awe-inspiring, totally metal cosmological discoveries, the culprit here is a supermassive black hole.
Physics World picked up on news of the gargantuan explosion, which was announced by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and based on findings in a study published in The Astrophysical Journal. According to the Chandra press release, the explosion was due to a supermassive black hole in the middle of a particularly large galaxy in the Ophiuchus (oh-fee-you-kus) galaxy cluster, which itself is roughly 390 million light-years away from Earth.
Astronomers actually first found evidence of the explosion back in 2016, when they saw a “crater” in the hot, intergalactic gas that pervades the Ophiuchus cluster. There was speculation that the crater could’ve been caused by the supermassive black hole inside the aforementioned galaxy—which isn’t named in the press release or anywhere else we could find—but that ideas was dismissed, as it would’ve required an unthinkably large explosion.
The biggest explosion seen in the universe has been found. 😱— NASA (@NASA) February 27, 2020
How data from our @chandraxray observatory contributed to the discovery of a record-breaking, gargantuan eruption from a black hole hundreds of millions of light years away: https://t.co/PE4tFfjq44 pic.twitter.com/CQVUOFZPsz
But the study, authored by Simona Giacintucci of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, et al., was based on both X-ray data and radio data, the former taken from Chandra, the latter from the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton space observatory (and supplemented by data from the Murchison Widefield Array in Australia, and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope in India), and thusly was able to confirm that the crater was indeed due to some kind of monumental “eruption”; one that produced the equivalent energy of one year’s output of 1020 Suns.
As the NASA explainer video (top) notes, the astronomers were able to conclude that the crater in the intergalactic gas was due to an explosion from the supermassive black hole when they overlaid the image generated by XMM-Newton’s radio data with the gas-crater image created with X-ray data from Chandra. Essentially, the radio data, which shows radio emissions created by electrons accelerated to nearly the speed of light, and hence likely to come from a cosmological explosion, fit perfectly inside of the crater in Ophiuchus intergalactic gas.
A look at the X-ray data (purple) overlaid on the radio data (blue)
For those wondering how a black hole, which is usually known for sucking things in, caused an explosion, there is an explanation there as well. The Chandra press release notes, “Although black holes are famous for pulling material toward them, they often expel prodigious amounts of material and energy. This happens when matter falling toward the black hole is redirected into jets, or beams, that blast outward into space and slam into any surrounding material.”
Even though there is now substantial evidence that the cavity in the intergalactic gas is indeed due to an explosion, the finding raises another major puzzle: Usually when supermassive blackholes create these kinds of explosions, they do so in two, opposite directions. But the astronomers didn’t find a cavity in the intergalactic gas on the opposite side of the supermassive black hole, as would’ve been expected. This puzzle, along with the others this finding reveals, will, according to Giacintucci, require the collection of a lot more data to solve.
Featured Image: Chandra X-Ray Observatory