(via Giant galaxy cluster sets record pace for creating stars | UChicago News)
Astronomers have found an extraordinary galaxy cluster — one of the largest objects in the universe — that is breaking several important cosmic records. The discovery of this cluster, known as the Phoenix Cluster, made with the National Science Foundation’s South Pole Telescope, may force astronomers to rethink how these colossal structures, and the galaxies that inhabit them, evolve.
Follow-up observations made in ultraviolet, optical and infrared wavelengths show that stars are forming in this object at the highest rate ever seen in the middle of a galaxy cluster. The object also is the most powerful producer of X-rays of any known cluster, and among the most massive of clusters. The data also suggest that the rate of hot gas cooling in the central regions of the cluster is the largest ever observed.
Officially known as SPT-CLJ2344-4243, this galaxy cluster has been dubbed the “Phoenix Cluster” because it is located in the constellation of the Phoenix, and because of its remarkable properties.
Stars forming at incredible rates
Like other galaxy clusters, Phoenix holds a vast reservoir of hot gas that contains more normal matter than all of the galaxies in the cluster combined. The reservoir of hot gas can be detected with X-ray telescopes like NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the shadow it makes in the light from the big bang can be detected with the South Pole Telescope. The prevailing wisdom had once been that this hot gas should cool over time and sink to the center of the cluster, forming huge numbers of stars.
However, most galaxy clusters have formed very few stars over the last few billion years.
Astronomers think that the supermassive black hole in the central galaxy of clusters pumps energy into the system, preventing cooling of gas from causing a burst of star formation. The famous Perseus Cluster is an example of a black hole bellowing out energy and preventing the gas from cooling to form stars at a high rate.
With its black hole not producing powerful enough jets, the center of the Phoenix Cluster is buzzing with stars that are forming 20 times faster than in the Perseus Cluster. This rate is the highest seen in the center of a galaxy cluster and is comparable to the highest seen anywhere in the universe.
Galaxy clusters contain enough hot gas to create detectable “shadows” in the light left over from the big bang, which also is known as the cosmic microwave background radiation. This light has literally travelled for 14 billion years across the entire observable universe to get to Earth. If it passes through a massive cluster on its way, then a tiny fraction of the light gets scattered to higher energies — the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect.
The South Pole Telescope collaboration has now completed an SZ survey of a large region of the sky finding hundreds of distant, massive galaxy clusters. Further follow-up observations of the clusters at X-ray and other wavelengths may reveal the existence of additional Phoenix-like galaxy clusters.
Artist’s impression of the galaxy at the center of the Phoenix Cluster.
Courtesy of NASA/CXC/M. Weiss