Space

Astronomers discover the biggest thing in the Universe

An image of the distribution of GRBs on the sky at a distance of 7 billion light years, centred on the newly discovered ring – the positions of the GRBs are marked by blue dots
An image of the distribution of GRBs on the sky at a distance of 7 billion light years, centred on the newly discovered ring – the positions of the GRBs are marked by blue dots
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An image of the distribution of GRBs on the sky at a distance of 7 billion light years, centred on the newly discovered ring – the positions of the GRBs are marked by blue dots
1/1
An image of the distribution of GRBs on the sky at a distance of 7 billion light years, centred on the newly discovered ring – the positions of the GRBs are marked by blue dots

There's some pretty big stuff out there in the Universe, but how big is the biggest? According to a team of Hungarian-US scientists led by Prof Lajos Balazs, the largest regular formation in the Universe is a ring of nine galaxies 7 billion light years away and 5 billion light years wide. Though not visible from Earth, the newly discovered feature covers a third of our sky.

The ring was revealed by nine Gamma-Ray Bursts (GRB) originating from the nine galaxies. GRBs are the brightest, most energetic events in the cosmos, putting out as much energy in seconds as the Sun will in its entire lifetime. They're caused by supernovae or hypernovae – supermassive stars collapse into neutron stars or black holes in times ranging from milliseconds to a few hours. Aside from their spectacular deaths, they also help astronomers to measure the distance of other galaxies.

In this case, the observed GRB's indicate that the nine galaxies are positioned in a ring shaped like a shell. They also show that the galaxies are all of a very similar distance from Earth – according to Prof Balazs, there's only a 1 in 20,000 chance that the ring's arrangement is accidental.

If it was visible to us, the ring would cover 36 percent of the sky, making it 70 times bigger than a full moon.

The importance of the ring isn't just that it appears to be a record breaker – it raises questions about the architecture of the Universe. In particular, it casts doubts on the Cosmological Principle. First asserted by Sir Isaac Newton and developed based on observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation and the structure of the early universe in the past century, it states that at the largest scale, the Universe is uniform, so no matter where you are, it looks essentially the same.

According to the team, recent work indicates that the largest structures can't be more than 1.2 billion light years across. This is at odds with the new discovery, as the ring is about five times as big, implying a much more uneven cosmos.

The next step for the team is to see if the processes controlling galaxy formation and large scale structure could have produced the ring without violating the Cosmological Principle. If not, it could require rethinking how the Universe evolved.

"If we are right, this structure contradicts the current models of the universe," says Balazs. "It was a huge surprise to find something this big – and we still don’t quite understand how it came to exist at all."

The team's results were published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Source: Royal Astronomical Society

18 comments
PawPawSimmons
This so called "structure" may not be so much "a structure" as it is a "reflection" within a gravitational wave that is a lot like looking down the inside of a pipe, even looking down the inside of a giant wave on the breaking wave you might be surfing. If you look at the "animated photo" you'll notice a sort of corkscrew type of structure, that thing may very well be the same event being reflected again and again, coming at you in sets "sort of like a mirage happening over and over" on broken gravity fronts. I've seen this kind of thing on other star maps and photos of deep space time and again. I could be wrong but I don't think so.
Peter Clark
What does the Prof mean "1 in 20,000 chance that the ring's arrangement is accidental"? Did something or someone make it? Has he just proved the existence of God? In any case, how did they calculate that number? It looks way too low!
Nik
"according to Prof Balazs, there's only a 1 in 20,000 chance that the ring's arrangement is accidental." Does this mean that he considers that it was 'intelligently designed?'
piperTom
"Five billion light years wide" means about 20 billion cubic light years or more than 2 billion cubic LY for each of the nine galaxies. Sounds more like an empty patch of sky rather than a "structure". For contrast, consider a billion LY diameter sphere right here: It includes Milky Way and Andromeda. It is densely packed with only .08 billion cubic LY per galaxy. There is something very wrong with this story.
BlueTrombone
Shouldn't that be the 'known' universe?
Elind
Looks more like a Fibonacci spiral than a ring/circle. Of course that would be even more interesting if accurate; but really, what prevents us from saying this is simply coincidental and that there need be no actual physical linkage between them? After all, were we seeing them from a different angle there would be nothing remarkable.
Douglas Bennett Rogers
Distant objects in an expanding universe are magnified because the early universe was smaller. 5B years ago the universe was 40% smaller. Therefore objects at 5B light years should appear 1.6 x as large.
Don Duncan
Nothing in the 'verse is accidental, i.e., "cause and effect" is a universal law. 20,000-1?? When we say an event was accidental, that does not mean it had no cause. The statement is about our knowledge of the event, not the event. It is an epistemological statement, not metaphysical. B.T.: Everything we know is about, i.e., in reference to, the known universe. That must be, and it's why we don't need to state it. How can we make a statement about an "unknown" universe?
Kristianna Thomas
In 1859, almost 100 years ago, Charles Darwin came out with the Origins of a Species. In the realm of astronomy we have explored scientifically the nature of the universe. We are still groping with how the [this] universe evolved, and continues to evolve over the course of billions of years. We, have made a lot of assumptions about the nature and structure of the [this] universe, and time and time again have had to re-evaluate our preconceived notions. There is much of the universe we don't see, and much of the [this] universe we still don't understand. "According to the team, a structure can not be more than 1.2 billion light years across." The object is 5 x larger than what they assume is possible, and the universe is not symmetrical; the universe is asymmetrical in nature. What! The universe is not made by Kibbler Elves? Is the universe like that of a multi-tentacle octopus, with the galaxies nestled into the tentacles spread out as they cannibalize other galaxies in their regions of space; creating super galaxies as matter consolidates into fewer and fewer galaxies?
RelayerM31
I'm looking forward to the (unfortunately named) James Webb telescope which will "rewrite the book" on astronomy. Astronomers will find that their new discoveries coincide perfectly with a book (the Bible) that needs no rewriting at all.