It wasn’t the universe-starting Big Bang, but it might be the biggest explosion since.
Astronomers say they’ve detected a black hole-triggered explosion so large that it could have obliterated our own Milky Way galaxy with plenty of room to spare, making it the biggest blast ever recorded since the beginning of time.
The truly mind-blowing explosion occurred hundreds of millions of light-years away, where a supermassive black hole essentially burped while devouring a galaxy, blowing a hole in space that’s 2.58 million light-years across. Researchers spotted it from the colossal gap it left in the middle of a cluster of galaxies.
“You could fit fifteen Milky Way galaxies in a row into the crater this eruption punched into the cluster’s hot gas,” said Simona Giacintucci, lead author of a published study on the discovery. She’s also an astronomer at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.
Giacintucci and her team first reported their discovery on Thursday after spotting it through the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, an orbital telescope run by NASA and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass.
“In some ways, this blast is similar to how the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 ripped off the top of the mountain,” Giacintucci added in a news release.
Black holes are known for consuming all energy and matter that falls into their inescapable gravitational pull. However, they also throw out jets of energy and matter while they’re eating planets and stars. Jets from this black hole appear to have torn through the surrounding galaxies in a big, “sloshing” eruption, according to the paper.
The blast occurred in the Ophiucus cluster, a collection of galaxies some 390 million light-years away. The Chandra telescope first detected a peculiar curved edge in the cluster in 2016, but researchers thought it was far too large a hole to have been caused by a blast. Observatories in India and Australia turned their scopes toward the same spot and eventually everyone agreed that yes, it was an explosion.
The hole they saw was much more empty than it ought to have been, given the surrounding stars and gas.
This labelled diagram shows a combination of data from three telescopes depicting evidence of a massive explosion in space.
This labelled diagram shows a combination of data from three telescopes depicting evidence of a massive explosion in space. Via Chandra X-Ray Observatory
“The radio data fit inside the X-rays like a hand in a glove,” co-author Maxim Markevitch of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said in a statement. “This is the clincher that tells us an eruption of unprecedented size occurred here.”
It’s unclear exactly when the explosion happened, but researchers say it was essentially a “dinosaur” explosion that occurred long ago.
In other words, the photos show a “very aged fossil” of trillions of stars that were wiped out in one big bang.