Astronomers Spot Biggest Explosion in Universe Since Big Bang—And It Came From a Supermassive Black Hole

Astronomers have identified a record-breaking event they say is the largest known explosion in the universe since the Big Bang itself.

The titanic blast originated from a supermassive black hole located at the heart of a galaxy in the center of the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, located about 390 million light-years from Earth, according to a paper published in The Astrophysical Journal.

These clusters are the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe, containing thousands of individual galaxies.

The explosion was so powerful it released five times more energy than the previous record holder, and punched a vast hole in the plasma—superheated gas—surrounding the black hole. This cavity measures around 1.5 million light-years across.

"We've seen outbursts in the centers of galaxies before but this one is really, really massive," Melanie Johnston-Hollitt, an author of the study from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Australia, said in a statement. "And we don't know why it's so big. But it happened very slowly—like an explosion in slow motion that took place over hundreds of millions of years."

"The energy of this outburst is about a billion times the energy of a supernova explosion—of the more powerful type," Maxim Markevitch, a co-author of the study from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, told Newsweek. "Closer to home, it would be enough to pulverize planet Earth 20 billion trillion times."

Lead author of the study Simona Giacintucci, from the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, compared the explosion to how Mount St. Helens blew its own top off during the infamous eruption of 1980.

"The difference is that you could fit 15 Milky Way galaxies in a row into the crater this eruption punched into the cluster's hot gas," she said in a statement.

The team of astronomers made the discovery by analyzing observations from four different telescopes. Two of them—NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton—are satellites that orbit the Earth. The other two—the Murchison Widefield Array and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope—are ground-based, located in Australia and India respectively.

biggest explosion universe
The immense explosion occurred in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, located around 390 million light-years from Earth. X-ray: NASA/CXC/Naval Research Lab/Giacintucci, S.; XMM:ESA/XMM; Radio: NCRA/TIFR/GMRTN; Infrared: 2MASS/UMass/IPAC-Caltech/NASA/NSF

The mixture of X-ray and radio data collected by these observatories helped the scientists conclude that an immense explosion had occurred. The huge hole in the plasma around the black hole had previously been detected by scientists. However, many had dismissed the idea it could have been caused an explosion because it was so huge.

"The radio data fit inside the X-rays like a hand in a glove," Maxim Markevitch, a co-author of the study from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in the statement. "This is the clincher that tells us an eruption of unprecedented size occurred here."

Black holes sometimes produce incredibly energetic explosions when material being sucked inwards is redirected into jets or beams of that are blasted outwards.

According to Markevitch, the latest discovery seriously challenges our understanding of how galaxy clusters work.

"We used to think that clusters are so big and massive that they are governed only by gravity and that the contributions from all the other physical processes, which are very important in galaxies—supernova explosions, jets from the massive black holes and so on—are relatively small and contained in their very central regions," he told Newsweek. "This makes galaxy clusters very simple objects that physicists like so much."

"If clusters are simple they can be used as standard rulers or standard weights for some very interesting remote-sensing experiments, such as evaluating the amount of dark energy and dark matter in the universe," he said. "The enormous fossil of an explosion that we've found is much bigger than anything we've expected. If this is just a weird one-off event then we may be okay with those experiments, but if such dinosaurs turn up in other clusters then we'll have to rethink a lot of things and measurements."

This article was updated to include additional comments from Maxim Markevitch.