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. Scientists at the University of Chicago’s Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics and their collaborators initially found the cluster, located about 5.7 billion light years from Earth, using the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect, the shadow that the cluster makes in fossil light leftover from the big bang.
Predicted in 1972, the effect was first demonstrated to find previously unknown clusters of galaxies by the South Pole Telescope collaboration in 2009. Observations of the effect have since opened a new window for astronomers to discover the most massive, distant clusters in the universe.
“The mythology of the Phoenix — a bird rising from the dead — is a perfect way to describe this revived object,” said Michael McDonald, a Hubble Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. McDonald is the lead author of a paper appearing in the Aug. 16 issue of the journal Nature, which presents these findings. “While galaxies at the center of most clusters have been dead for billions of years, the central galaxy in this cluster seems to have come back to life,” McDonald said.