Astronomers have just discovered what may become the largest thing in the modern universe: a giant cluster of at least 14 galaxies, set on a massive collision course.
This is the absolute first time that scientists have ever detected an astronomical event of such colossal proportions, ScienceDaily reports.
Described as a galactic "megamerger," this ground-breaking discovery depicts the birth of a mammoth super-galaxy formed over 12 billion years ago when the universe was just 1.4-billion-years-old. The cluster of colliding galaxies lies so far out towards the boundaries of the observable universe that it has taken this long for its emitted light to reach us, the BBC notes.
Discovered during a follow-up analysis of the South Pole Telescope survey conducted in Antarctica, this extraordinary galaxy cluster is detailed in a study published yesterday in the journal Nature.
"We found it originally as a bright point source in the survey. I don't think we were expecting something quite this spectacular but we knew it had to be exciting," study co-author Tim Miller, from the Yale University in Connecticut, said in a statement.
The cluster initially appeared as a "fuzzy blob" made up of three galaxies, but additional observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile revealed the cluster's true size.
"It just hit you in the face because all of a sudden there are all these galaxies there. We went from three to 14 in one fell swoop," said study co-author Scott Chapman, the Killam Professor in astrophysics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.This monumental discovery offers us an unexpected chance to look back in time and witness how galaxy clusters are created.
"This is the missing link in our understanding of how clusters form," states study co-author Chris Hayward, research scientist at the Flatiron Institute in New York City.
According to the observations, the 14 galaxies are crammed into an area that's only four times wider than the Milky Way. The team calls it a "protocluster" and says it offers crucial information on how super-galaxies are shaped into existence.
The study revealed that the 14-galaxy cluster is buzzing with activity, creating stars at a record-pace, 50 to 1,000 times higher than the star-forming rate in our own galaxy.
Although it's not uncommon for some galaxies (known as starburst galaxies) to churn out stars at a higher rate than others, this is the first time so many of them have been spotted grouped together. Additionally, their incredibly fast pace — a lot faster than those of solitary galaxies, notes ScienceDaily — suggests the 14 galaxies are influencing one another, a sign that they are actively merging into a cluster.
"More so than any other candidate discovered to date, this seems like we're catching a cluster in the process of being assembled," Hayward points out.
Computer simulations revealed that, over time, the 14-galaxy "megamerger" will evolve into one of the most massive structures in the universe. The protocluster encompasses a mass 10 trillion times bigger than that of the sun, and scientists predict it may expand a hundred times more.
At such a staggering size of 1,000 trillion times the mass of our sun, this giant band of galaxies may grow to rival the Coma Cluster, one of the richest galaxy clusters known to man.