The closest thing to the Big Bang ever found in the universe was just detected in a galaxy 390 million light-years from Earth. It was such an energetic burst that it tore a massive cavity in the cluster plasma of a supermassive black hole, like a supervolcano decimating an entire mountainside, reports Phys.org.
Although the explosion was five times more powerful than anything ever detected before, it still pales in comparison to the Big Bang, which of course birthed the universe itself. Still, it's a good thing we weren't anywhere near when this galactic bomb went off, as it would have annihilated anything in its wake.
"We've seen outbursts in the centers of galaxies before but this one is really, really massive," said Professor Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research. "And we don't know why it's so big. But it happened very slowly — like an explosion in slow motion that took place over hundreds of millions of years."
Researchers are still at a loss to explain what could have caused an explosion this big. In fact, many were skeptical when the report first got released in the Astrophysical Journal.
"People were skeptical because of the size of outburst," said Johnston-Hollitt. "But it really is that. The Universe is a weird place."
A big blast in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster
The explosion came from a supermassive black hole in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, and it punched a gigantic crater in the black hole's super-hot halo of gas. You'd think that a blast this large would have been hard to miss, but no one noticed it until the region was looked at under many different wavelengths. That's because the explosion happened long ago, and all we see now are the remnants of it, like a fossil imprint in the sky.
It took four telescopes to map out the dimensions of the blast: NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, ESA's XMM-Newton, the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) in Western Australia and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in India.
"It's a bit like archaeology," explained Johnston-Hollitt. "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."
The discovery highlights the importance of scanning the sky at different wavelengths. Things visible in one wavelength might be invisible in another. Our universe is far more layered than any one wavelength can define.
Who knows what we might uncover the more we peel away the layers. First up, though, scientists need to figure out what could have caused such an immense explosion such as the one in Ophiuchus. Previously, it wasn't believed that such blasts like this were possible. There are forces at work in the deep trenches of our universe that we still can't fathom.
That's a bit frightening to imagine, but also full of the excitement of discovery.