Space & Innovation

Universe's Largest Structure is a Cosmic Conundrum

Astronomers have found a mind-bogglingly large structure -- so big it takes light 10 billion years to traverse -- in a distant part of the universe.

Astronomers have found a mind-bogglingly large structure -- so big it takes light 10 billion years to traverse -- in a distant part of the universe.

The discovery poses a conundrum to a fundamental tenet of modern cosmology, which posits that matter should appear to be distributed uniformly if viewed at a large enough scale.

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The newly found structure is more than double the size of the previous record-holder, a cluster of 73 quasars referred to as the Huge-LQG, or Large Quasar Group, which spans 4 billion light-years. It is six times larger than the 1.4-billion-light year diameter Sloan Great Wall.

Light travels at about 671 million miles per hour, or about 6 trillion miles per year.

Scientists found the new structure by mapping the locations of gamma ray bursts. These fleeting, but high-energy outbursts are believed to be caused by exploding massive stars.

"It's a great tracer of where something was," astronomer Jon Hakkila, with the College of Charleston in South Carolina, told Discovery News.

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Because bigger stars form in areas with more material in general, gamma ray bursts can give astronomers a rough estimate of how much matter a particular region contains.

"We're treating each (gamma ray burst) source as if it's a pin in the map and it's sticking to something," Hakkila said.

After accounting for potential survey biases -- such as NASA's Swift telescope and other gamma ray trackers looking more often in one part of the sky or another -- scientists found a region roughly 10 billion light-years away in the direction of the constellations Hercules and Corona Borealis that had a disproportionate number of gamma ray bursts.

Extrapolating from the locations of the bursts, scientists estimate the structure from which they came spans approximately 10 billion light-years in diameter.

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"This is probably a large concentration of galaxy clusters and other normal matter," co-investigator Istvan Horvath, with the National University of Public Service in Budapest, Hungary, wrote in an email to Discovery News.

Additional monitoring of gamma ray bursts should provide more evidence for the structure's existence.

For now, Horvath says he has "no idea" how something that big could have evolved.

The research appears in the online archive arXiv.org (arXiv:1311.1104 [astro-ph.CO]).

Artist's impression of a gamma-ray burst -- by tracking these powerful explosions the distribution of matter throughout the Cosmos can be traced.

To celebrate its 23rd year in space, the Hubble Space Telescope snapped this view of the famous Horsehead nebula in infrared light. Usually obscured by the thick clouds of dust and gas, baby stars can be seen cocooned inside this stellar nursery. For the last 23 years, Hubble has been looking deep into the Cosmos returning over a million observations of nebular such as this, but also planets, exoplanets, galaxies and clusters of galaxies. The mission is a testament to the the human spirit to want to explore and discover. Here are some of our favorite recent observations to come from the veteran mission.

Light from an ancient galaxy 10 billion light-years away has been bent and magnified by the galaxy cluster RCS2 032727-132623. Without the help of this lensing effect, the distant galaxy would be extremely faint.

Source: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2012/2012/08/results/100/

This is 30 Doradus, deep inside the Tarantula Nebula, located over 170,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. 30 Doradus is an intense star-forming region where millions of baby stars are birthed inside the thick clouds of dust and gas.

Source: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2012/2012/01/results/100/

NGC 3314 is actually two galaxies overlapping. They’re not colliding – as they are separated by tens of millions of light-years – but from our perspective, the pair appears to be in a weird cosmic dance.

Source: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2012/2012/29/results/100/

Arp 116 consists of a very odd galactic couple. M60 is the huge elliptical galaxy to the left and NGC 4647 is the small spiral galaxy to the right. M60 is famous for containing a gargantuan supermassive black hole in its core weighing in at 4.5 billion solar masses.

Source: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2012/2012/38/image/a/results/100/

With help from the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in New Mexico, Hubble has observed the awesome power of the supermassive black hole in the core of elliptical galaxy Hercules A. Long jets of gas are being blasted deep into space as the active black hole churns away inside the galaxy’s nucleus.

Source: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2012/47/image/a/

The striking Sharpless 2-106 star-forming region is approximately 2,000 light-years from Earth and has a rather beautiful appearance. The dust and gas of the stellar nursery has created a nebula that looks like a ‘snow angel.’

Source: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2011/2011/38/image/a/results/100/

NGC 922 is a spiral galaxy with a difference. Over 300 million years ago, a smaller galaxy (called 2MASXI J0224301-244443) careened through the center of its disk causing a galactic-scale smash-up, blasting out the other side. This massive disruption generated waves of gravitational energy, triggering pockets of new star formation – highlighted by the pink nebulae encircling the galaxy.

Source: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2012/2012/45/

Four hundred years ago a star exploded as a type 1a supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) some 170,000 light-years from Earth. This is what was left behind. The beautiful ring-like structure of supernova remnant (SNR) 0509-67.5 is highlighted by Hubble and NASA’s Chandra X-ray space observatory observations. The X-ray data (blue/green hues) are caused by the shockwave of the supernova heating ambient gases.

Source: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2012/2012/06/image/a/results/100/

The intricate wisps of thin gas (billions of times less dense than smoke in our atmosphere) from Herbig-Haro 110 are captured in this stunning Hubble observation. Herbig-Haro objects are young stars in the throes of adolescence, blasting jets of gas from their poles.

Source: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2012/30/image/a/

Contained within an area a fraction of the diameter of the moon, astronomers counted thousands of galaxies in the deepest observation ever made by Hubble. Combining 10 years of Hubble observations, the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) has picked out galaxies that were forming when the Universe was a fraction of the age it is now.

Source: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2012/37/