Researchers have discovered a cosmic one-two punch unlike anything ever seen before. Two of the most powerful phenomena in the Universe, a supermassive black hole, and the collision of giant galaxy clusters, have combined to create a stupendous cosmic particle accelerator about two billion light years from Earth
Astronomers using data from India’s Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) and other telescopes, researchers found what happens when matter ejected by a giant black hole is swept up between two colliding galaxy clusters. This cosmic double whammy is found in a pair of colliding galaxy clusters called Abell 3411 and Abell 3412 situated two billion light year away from us. Both clusters, incredibly massive: weighing about a quadrillion – or a million billion – times the mass of the Sun.
The comet-shaped appearance of the X-rays detected by Chandra is produced by hot gas from one cluster plowing through the hot gas of the other cluster. Optical data from the Keck Observatory and Japan’s Subaru telescope, both on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, detected the galaxies in each cluster.
First, at least one spinning, supermassive black hole in one of the galaxy clusters produced a rotating, tightly-wound magnetic funnel. The powerful electromagnetic fields associated with this structure have accelerated some of the inflowing gas away from the vicinity of the black hole in the form of an energetic, high-speed jet.
Then, these accelerated particles in the jet were accelerated again when they encountered colossal shock waves—cosmic versions of sonic booms generated by supersonic aircraft—produced by the collision of the massive gas clouds associated with the galaxy clusters.
“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.”, “It is a bit poetic that it took a combination of the world’s biggest observatories to understand this.” Said the co-author William Dawson of Lawrence Livermore National Lab in Livermore, Calif.
This discovery solves a long-standing mystery in galaxy cluster research about the origin of beautiful swirls of radio emission stretching for millions of light years, detected in Abell 3411 and Abell 3412 with the GMRT.