Astronomers observe ‘cosmic double whammy’

Jets of matter being blasted into space by spinning supermassive black holes and galaxy cluster collisions are nothing new to the world's astronomers, but a new study has managed to observe both processes occurring in the same place at the same time.

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In this image, blue shows diffuse emission from hot gas in the two galaxy clusters Abell 3411 and Abell 3412. The comet-like shape of the gas shows astronomers that the two clusters are colliding, while the ‘head’ of the comet shape is created by hot gas from one cluster forcing through the hot gas of the other. Red shows shock waves produced by the cluster collision. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/R. van Weeren et al; Optical: NAOJ/Subaru; Radio: NCRA/TIFR/GMRT

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Astronomers have observed a ‘cosmic double whammy’ in the form of matter that was ejected from a supermassive black hole being swept up in the collision of two galaxy clusters.

The discovery is thought to have solved the mystery of swirls of radio emission that have been observed stretching millions of lightyears into space.

The event was observed during the collision of two galaxy clusters, Abell 3411 and Abell 3412, about two billion lightyears from Earth.

Spinning supermassive black holes generate powerful electromagnetic fields that fling inflowing gas back out into space in the form of a powerful jet.

This process occurred in one of the two galaxy clusters, but the ejected particles received a second boost from shock waves generated by the collision of massive gas clouds around each of the clusters.

“We have seen each of these spectacular phenomena separately in many places,” says study leader Reinout van Weeren of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“This is the first time, however, that we have seen them clearly linked together in the same system.”

The study suggests that these twice-accelerated particles produced the giant swirls of radio emission that have been observed in galaxy cluster research, but for which no source had been confirmed.

“This result shows that a remarkable combination of powerful events generate these particle acceleration factories, which are the largest and most powerful in the Universe,” says study co-author William Dawson of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

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“It is a bit poetic that it took a combination of the world’s biggest observatories to understand this.”