Photo by: X-ray: Chandra: NASA/CXC/NRL/S. Giacintucci, et al., XMM-Newton: ESA/XMM-Newton; Radio: NCRA/TIFR/GMRT; Infrared: 2MASS/UMass/IPAC-Caltech/NASA/NSF

X-ray: Chandra: NASA/CXC/NRL/S. Giacintucci, et al., XMM-Newton: ESA/XMM-Newton; Radio: NCRA/TIFR/GMRT; Infrared: 2MASS/UMass/IPAC-Caltech/NASA/NSF

Going for Gold: The Biggest Explosion in the Universe

Meet the humble Ophiuchus galaxy cluster. It’s just another dense clump of galaxies, one of approximately a bajillion, dotting the universe. It sits about 240 million lightyears away from Earth.

And its heart is missing.

August 12, 2021

Back in 2016, astronomers using the Chandra X-ray telescope were taking detailed pictures of the core of the galaxy cluster. Besides the usual assortment of galaxies, each cluster is also filled with a hot, thin plasma. This plasma is so effervescent that it would register as a vacuum in Earth laboratories, but so hot that it’s capable of emitting intense X-ray radiation.

In the process of their studies, they were surprised to find a giant cavity, a void tens of thousands of light-years wide. That hole is big enough that you could fit 15 Milky Way galaxies, laid out side by side like cosmic ants on a log, within it.

The constellation of Aquila (at centre) surrounded by Scutum and its starcloud (below) and Serpens and Ophiuchus (at right to the west). Altair is the bright star left of centre, with Tarazed above it. Albireo in Cygnus is at the very top  Above Aquila and below Albireo are the small constellations of Sagitta, Vulpecula and Delphinus (the latter at left). The Coathanger asterism is visible at top in the Milky Way, as are the large open clusters IC 4756 and NGC 6633, the S-O Double Cluster, at right straddling the Serpens-Ophiuchus border.   Taken August 20, 2019 during the brief interval of darkness before moonrise at 11 pm this night. This is a stack of 7 x 2-minute exposures with the 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 1600, with an additional exposure taken through the Kenko Softon A filter layered in to add the star glows. On the Star Adventurer tracker from home. (Photo by: Alan Dyer/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


Ophiuchus in the summer sky.

Photo by: VW Pics

VW Pics

Ophiuchus in the summer sky.

Where there’s smoke there’s a fire, and where there’s a giant cavity in a volume of gas, there’s an explosion.

Indeed, the energy needed to blow a hole that big is about 10^61 ergs. Don’t worry too much about what an “erg” is, just know that humanity’s total energy consumption every year is a measly 10^20 ergs – it would take about a million billion billion billion years for us humans to consume the amount of energy needed to excavate that void.

That’s a lot of energy.

Whatever caused the hole in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster is the most powerful explosion known to humanity. It’s definitely the current gold-medal record holder in the game of giant, cosmic explosions.

What caused it was, ironically, a black hole. Black holes are known for their enormous sucking power, but are also capable of generating these immense explosions.

What happens is that as gas and dust swirl down towards a black hole, it compresses and heats up. There’s a lot of room outside a black hole, and not so much in it, and so the gas has to occupy a smaller volume. That makes it heat up. And super-heated, spinning gas powers up truly enormous electric and magnetic fields.

The Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex from NASA's WISE. The Rho Ophiuchi cloud is found rising above the plane of the Milky Way in the night sky, bordering the constellations Ophiuchus and Scorpius. It's one of the nearest star-forming regions to Earth. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


From NASA's WISE, the Rho Ophiuchi cloud rising above the plane of the Milky Way in the night sky.

Photo by: Universal History Archive

Universal History Archive

From NASA's WISE, the Rho Ophiuchi cloud rising above the plane of the Milky Way in the night sky.

Those electric and magnetic fields swirl around the black hole, forcing the surrounding material to follow their direction. Some gas and dust end up falling below the event horizon of the black hole, never to be seen again. But some get whipped around, following complex, curving trajectories.

That material then blasts out of the poles of the spinning black hole, like two giant search lights piercing into the vast darkness of space. These jets can reach tens of thousands of light-years. And where they meet resistance, like the thin (but still very real) gas within a galaxy cluster, it blows the whole thing wide open.

Astronomers aren’t sure when this particular magnificent reaction happened, or what exactly the giant black hole in the center of the Ophiuchus cluster ate.

But it definitely deserved its place on the podium.

Paul M. Sutter

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute, host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and author of How to Die in Space.

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