An exciting new study announces the discovery of the largest, most massive structure to ever form in the ancient universe — to our knowledge, that is. The object in question is a colossal pileup of galaxies called a supercluster and has a staggering mass exceeding that of one million billion suns.
This ancient behemoth dates back to the early days of the universe and only started forming 2.3 billion years after the Big Bang, reports the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which contributed to the find by lending astronomers the use of its Very Large Telescope (VLT).
Spotted with the help of the VLT's VIMOS instrument, the galaxy supercluster — which ESO refers to as a "proto-cluster" to emphasize its astounding age — was nicknamed "Hyperion," after one of the 12 titans of Greek mythology.
While galaxy superclusters are certainly not uncommon — in fact, the visible universe hosts more than 10 million of these gargantuan structures, notes Science Alert — finding one that took shape so early on in the history of the universe was a major revelation.
This is because galaxy superclusters are usually found after "the universe has had much more time to evolve and construct such huge things," explains study lead author Olga Cucciati, an astronomer at the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica in Bologna, Italy.
As Space points out, the galactic superclusters that astronomers normally come across are much younger and are associated with lower redshifts — a measure of how much an object's light has been stretched by the expanding universe.
"This is the first time that such a large structure has been identified at such a high redshift, just over 2 billion years after the Big Bang," said Cucciati. "It was a surprise to see something this evolved when the universe was relatively young!"
To get a better idea of Hyperion's enormous scale, take a look at the video below — in which ESO offers a 3D visualization of the cosmic titan.Located 11 billion light-years from Earth in the Sextans constellation (The Sextant), Hyperion offers us a glimpse into the past. Since it took such a long time for its light to reach our planet, current observations reflect what this titan of the ancient universe looked like 11 billion years ago.
"This is the largest and most massive structure yet found at such a remote time and distance," stated ESO officials.
Another remarkable thing about the newfound galaxy supercluster is its "very complex structure." Hyperion is made up of a series of galaxy bundles — at least seven such high-density regions have been spotted within the supercluster — connected by filaments that are also composed of galaxies.
"Superclusters closer to Earth tend to a much more concentrated distribution of mass with clear structural features," said study co-author Brian Lemaux, an astronomer from University of California, Davis. "But in Hyperion, the mass is distributed much more uniformly in a series of connected blobs, populated by loose associations of galaxies."
While Hyperion is not so different in size from other nearby structures, the supercluster probably owes its distinctive look to its very young age. According to ESO, the neighboring superclusters have had billions of years to be shaped by gravity and become more condensed.
The image below shows the extent of this ancient supercluster compared to the size of a typical massive galaxy cluster in the local universe.
Judging by how much this proto-cluster managed to grow so early on after the birth of the universe, scientists are estimating that Hyperion will one day rival the Virgo Supercluster — an immense collection of more than 47,000 galaxies, including the Milky Way.
As the Inquisitr previously reported, the Virgo Supercluster is thought to measure 110 million light-years across and is itself a smaller part of a much larger structure called Laniakea — which translates to "immeasurable heavens" in Hawaiian.
"Understanding Hyperion and how it compares to similar recent structures can give insights into how the universe developed in the past and will evolve into the future," remarked Cucciati. "Unearthing this cosmic titan helps uncover the history of these large-scale structures."
The study describing this discovery is due to be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics and can be read on the pre-print server arXiv.