Astronomers have discovered a massive galaxy cluster located an impressive 8.5 billion light-years from Earth. It is hoped that further analysis of the cluster, which has been imaginatively named Massive Overdense Object (MOO) J1142+1527 (MOO J1142+1527), will allow scientists to shed some light on the evolution of some of the largest structures in our Universe.
Galaxy clusters are formed of thousands of separate, gravitationally bound galaxies, that are believed to get larger and pick up more galaxies as they age, in a snowball effect. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is itself nestled in the furthest reaches of a galaxy cluster known as Laniakea.
MOO J1142+1527 was first discovered via astronomers analyzing data harvested by the Spitzer and WISE orbital telescopes. The infrared capabilities of the telescopes allow them to easily separate foreground and background clusters in the infrared spectrum, as distant structures appear red, while closer galaxies and clusters show up as white.
An initial analysis of WISE data turned up hundreds of millions of objects captured by the telescope between 2010-2011. More detailed data from NASA's Spitzer telescope subsequently narrowed the spread of potentially significant galactic clusters to around 200.
Having recognized the extreme nature of MOO J1142+1527, astronomers tasked ground based observatories to characterize the precise distance and mass of the cluster. It was discovered that the vast galactic structure had a mass the equivalent of a quadrillion times that of our Sun, and sat 8.5 billion light-years from Earth.
"Based on our understanding of how galaxy clusters grow from the very beginning of our universe, this cluster should be one of the five most massive in existence at that time," states co-author of the paper on the discovery Peter Eisenhardt, project scientist for WISE at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
The extreme distance of MOO J1142+1527 makes it ideally suited for observations focussed on discerning the evolutionary paths of the enormous galactic structures. Astronomers can study the cluster exactly as it was 8.5 billion years ago, when the light we are detecting today was first created by MOO J1142+1527
Looking forward, the team of astronomers will attempt to use the Spitzer telescope to isolate the largest of the distant clusters out of the 1,700 remaining candidates.
A paper on the discovery has been published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.