Astronomers Observe Formation of Largest Bound Structures in the Universe

An international team of astronomers has mapped the density and temperature of X-ray-emitting gas in the outskirts of a distant galaxy cluster. The results, obtained with the orbiting Japanese X-ray telescope Suzaku, give the first complete X-ray view of a galaxy cluster, and provide insight into how such clusters come together.

“These Suzaku observations are exciting because we can finally see how these structures, the largest bound objects in the universe, grow even more massive,” said Matt George, the study’s lead author at the University of California, Berkeley.

The team trained Suzaku’s X-ray telescopes on the massive galaxy cluster PKS 0745-191, which lies 1.3 billion light-years away in the southern constellation Puppis. Between May 11 and 14, 2007, Suzaku acquired five images of the million-degree gas that permeates the cluster.

The X-ray images of the cluster helped astronomers measure the temperature and density of the gas. These provide clues about the gas pressure and cluster’s total mass. The hottest, densest gas lies near the cluster’s center, while gas temperature and density steadily decline away from the center.

Astronomers believe the gas in the inner part of a galaxy cluster has settled into an ordered “relaxed” state in equilibrium with the cluster’s gravity. But in the outer regions, where galaxies first begin a billion-year plunge towards the cluster’s center, the gas remains in a disordered state because it’s still falling inward.

“Clusters are the most massive, relaxed objects in the universe, and they are continuing to form now,” said team member Andy Fabian at the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy in the UK.

For the first time, this study shows X-ray emission and gas density and temperature out to the region where the gas is disordered, and where the cluster continues to assemble.

“It gives us the first complete X-ray view of a cluster of galaxies”, said Fabian.

In PKS 0745-191, the gas temperature peaks at 164 million degrees Fahrenheit (91 million C) about 1.1 million light-years from the cluster’s center. The temperature declines smoothly with distance, dropping to 45 million F (25 million C) more than 5.6 million light-years from the center.

To accurately measure X-ray emission at the cluster’s edge requires detectors with exceptionally low background noise. Suzaku has advanced X-ray detectors, and it lies in a low-altitude orbit near the Earth’s magnetic field, which protects the observatory from energetic particles from the sun and beyond.

“With more Suzaku observations in the outskirts of other galaxy clusters, we’ll get a better picture of how these massive structures evolve,” added George.

Suzaku (Japanese for “red bird of the south”) was launched on July 10, 2005. The observatory was developed at the Japanese Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), which is part of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), in collaboration with NASA and other Japanese and U.S. institutions.

The results were published in the May 11 edition of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.


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