VLA Discovers Giant Rings Around Galaxy Cluster

Nov 02, 2006
VLA Discovers Giant Rings Around Galaxy Cluster
A combined radio/optical image shows the galaxy cluster Abell 3376 in visible light (blue) and radio (red) images. The giant radio arcs surrounding the cluster were discovered using the Very Large Array. The visible-light image is from the Digitized Sky survey. CREDIT: Joydeep Bagchi, IUCAA, NRAO/AUI/NSF

Astronomers using the National Science Foundation's Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope have discovered giant, ring-like structures around a cluster of galaxies. The discovery provides tantalizing new information about how such galaxy clusters are assembled, about magnetic fields in the vast spaces between galaxy clusters, and possibly about the origin of cosmic rays.

"These giant, radio-emitting rings probably are the result of shock waves caused by violent collisions of smaller groups of galaxies within the cluster," said Joydeep Bagchi, of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune, India, who led an international research team. The scientists reported their findings in the November 3 edition of the journal Science.

The newly-discovered ring segments, some 6 million light-years across, surround a galaxy cluster called Abell 3376, more than 600 million light-years from Earth. They were revealed because fast-moving electrons emitted radio waves as they spiraled around magnetic field lines in intergalactic space. "Even from this large distance, the feeble radio waves were easily picked up by the VLA, thanks to its very high sensitivity and unique capability to make images of exceedingly faint radio-emitting objects," Bagchi said.

VLA Discovers Giant Rings Around Galaxy Cluster
An X-ray image of Abell 3376 made using the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton telescope shows a spectacular, bullet-shaped region of X-rays coming from gas heated to 60 million degrees Kelvin. The bullet shape results from the supersonic collision of a smaller smaller galaxy subcluster with the main body of the larger cluster. CREDIT: Joydeep Bagchi, IUCAA, ESA

The scientists also used the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton, the world's most sensitive X-ray observatory, to observe this extraordinary cluster of galaxies. "The advanced technical capabilities of the orbiting XMM-Newton revealed a spectacular bullet-like region of X-ray emission in this dynamically active cluster," said Gastao B. Lima Neto, of the Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a co-author of the research paper.

"Our X-ray observations strongly suggest a recent collision and merger of two or more smaller clusters. Such a phenomenon is among the most energetic events in the Universe after the Big Bang. Only a tiny fraction of the total energy of this collision, if transferred to electrons, would cause them to emit the radio waves observed by the VLA. However, the main question is, how this is achieved," said Florence Durret of the Astrophysical Institute of Paris, France, another of the researchers.

The scientists calculated that the total energy of the colliding groups of galaxies would be enough to keep our Sun shining for more than 20 sextillion years (2 followed by 22 zeros)!

"We think the shock waves that sped up these electrons came from the collision of a smaller group of galaxies with the main body of the larger cluster. When two such massive objects crash into each other at supersonic speed, gigantic ripple-like shock waves are created in the surrounding gas, which race out to the outer regions of the forming cluster at a speed of thousands of kilometers per second," Bagchi said.

"You can imagine that each cluster is like a supersonic aircraft, moving faster than the speed of sound in the surrounding gas, and just as you hear a sonic boom when shock waves from an airplane pass by you, we believe that the situation in the Abell 3376 cluster is similar, with ringlike radio structures tracing out the shock waves," Bagchi explained.

Such a scenario also is supported by images of the cluster made with the XMM-Newton and ROSAT X-ray satellites, as well as by computer simulations, Bagchi added. The exact mechanism for producing the shock waves is still open to question, the scientists said.

"This is the first observational evidence for this type of shock wave around a massive galaxy cluster," Bagchi said. "This discovery will help us understand more about the thin gas between the galaxies, and also about the magnetic fields in the outskirts of such clusters -- magnetic fields whose origin still is unknown," he said.

In addition, the scientists speculate that violent regions like those in Abell 3376 may be sites from which cosmic rays originate. Cosmic rays are protons or atomic nuclei accelerated to nearly the speed of light, and shocks such as those found in the collisions of galaxy groups may be energetic enough to provide the required amount of "kick."

"Some of the most energetic cosmic ray particles detected on Earth may contain about 100 million times more energy than the highest energy achieved so far in any man-made particle accelerator. Where do these cosmic rays come from and exactly what process kicks them to such stupendous energy is still a fascinating unsolved problem of physics," said graduate student Surajit Paul of the Institute for Theoretical Physics and Astrophysisc at Wuerzburg University in Germany, who was on the research team.

"A cosmic accelerator source containing powerful shock waves and magnetic fields extending over millions of light years in length is capable of accelerating a proton or nucleus to such enormous energies. Although our observations do not conclusively show the evidence for such particles, our VLA radio image does show clearly that such structures are indeed present in this galaxy cluster. Only future cosmic ray observations can tell if Abell 3376 is an ultra-high-energy cosmic ray source. We will continue to explore this fascinating cosmic laboratory in the future, employing some of the world's most sensitive radio, X-ray and gamma-ray telescopes to reveal its mysteries," Bagchi said.

Source: NRAO

Explore further: Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

10 facts about the Milky Way

Dec 04, 2014

The Milky Way Galaxy is an immense and very interesting place. Not only does it measure some 100,000–120,000 light-years in diameter, it is home to planet Earth, the birthplace of humanity. Our Solar System ...

POLARBEAR seeks cosmic answers in microwave polarization

Oct 21, 2014

An international team of physicists has measured a subtle characteristic in the polarization of the cosmic microwave background radiation that will allow them to map the large-scale structure of the universe, ...

Image: Hubble captures the Butterfly Nebula

Oct 13, 2014

Many celestial objects are beautiful – swirling spiral galaxies or glittering clusters of stars are notable examples. But some of the most striking scenes are created during the death throes of intermediate-mass ...

Swirling electrons in the whirlpool galaxy

Aug 20, 2014

The whirlpool galaxy Messier 51 (M51) is seen from a distance of approximately 30 million light years. This galaxy appears almost face-on and displays a beautiful system of spiral arms.

Recommended for you

Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem?

Dec 24, 2014

Bright stars top Christmas trees in Christian homes around much of the world. The faithful sing about the Star of Wonder that guided the wise men to a manger in the little town of Bethlehem, where Jesus was ...

Hubbles spies the beautiful galaxy IC 335

Dec 24, 2014

This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the galaxy IC 335 in front of a backdrop of distant galaxies. IC 335 is part of a galaxy group containing three other galaxies, and located in the Fornax ...

Image: Multicoloured view of supernova remnant

Dec 22, 2014

Most celestial events unfold over thousands of years or more, making it impossible to follow their evolution on human timescales. Supernovas are notable exceptions, the powerful stellar explosions that make ...

Ultra-luminous X-ray sources in starburst galaxies

Dec 22, 2014

Ultra-luminous X-ray sources (ULXs) are point sources in the sky that are so bright in X-rays that each emits more radiation than a million suns emit at all wavelengths. ULXs are rare. Most galaxies (including ...

When a bright light fades

Dec 22, 2014

Astronomer Charles Telesco is primarily interested in the creation of planets and stars. So, when the University of Florida's giant telescope was pointed at a star undergoing a magnificent and explosive death, ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.