Astronomers have discovered the largest cosmic explosion to date

A team of British astronomers has discovered the largest cosmic explosion ever recorded. The explosion was more than 10 times brighter than any known supernova and 3 times brighter than the brightest tidal disruption event in which a star falls into a supermassive black hole. On May 12, the study was published in the Monthly Proceedings of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Artistic imagination of a black hole devouring gas. Photo by John A. Paice

The explosion, dubbed AT2021lwx, has been going on for more than 3 years now, while most supernovae are only a few months. It occurred nearly 8 billion light-years away, when the universe was about 6 billion years old, and was still detectable by telescope arrays.

Researchers believe that the explosion may have been caused by a huge gas cloud. The gas cloud is thousands of times larger than the sun and was violently destroyed by a supermassive black hole. Debris of the cloud would be devoured, sending shock waves through its remnants and entering a huge “doughnut” of dust around the black hole. Such an event is very rare, and people have never seen an event of this magnitude before.

Last year, astronomers witnessed the brightest explosion ever recorded, a gamma-ray burst known as GRB 221009A. Although it is brighter than the AT2021lwx, it only lasts for a short time. This means that the total energy released by the AT2021lw x explosion is much greater.

AT2021lwx was first detected in 2020 by the Zwicky Transient Research Facility in California, USA, and subsequently captured by the Asteroid Earth Impact Final Warning System in Hawaii. So far, the scale of the explosion is unknown.

“It was a serendipitous discovery.” Philip Wiseman, a researcher at the University of Southampton who led the study, said: “When looking for a supernova, our search algorithm flagged it. Most supernova and tidal destruction events last only a few months before disappearing, and it’s unusual. ”

The team further investigated this using several different telescopes, including the Neil Gales Swift Telescope, the New Technology Telescope, and the Canary Large Telescope.

By analyzing the spectrum, breaking it down into different wavelengths, and measuring the different absorption and emission characteristics of the spectrum, the team was able to measure the distances of celestial objects.

Co-author Sebastian Hönig, a professor at the University of Southampton, said: “Once you know the distance of the object and how bright it appears to us, we can calculate the brightness of its source. We realized that this explosion was very bright. ”

The only one in the universe comparable in brightness to AT2021lwx is a quasar, a supermassive black hole that emits a bright light as it devours huge amounts of gas at the center of galaxies. Co-author Mark Sullivan, a professor at the University of Southampton, explains: “The light emitted by quasars usually flickers erratically, and AT2021lwx suddenly appeared 3 years ago and is still glowing today, which is unprecedented. ”

The jury is still out on what caused the explosion. But the University of Southampton-led team believes the most plausible explanation is that a huge cloud of gas, mostly hydrogen, veered off course and fell into the black hole.

The team is now working to collect more data on the explosion and will also upgrade the computational simulations to test whether it matches their theories about the cause of the explosion. “We hope to discover more of these events and learn more about them.” Wiseman said. (Source: Wang Fang, China Science News)

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