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Astronomers discover the biggest structure in the universe

A group of astronomers from Hungary and Maerics have discovered what seems to be the largest structure in the observable universe so far: a giant ring of nine gamma ray bursts—and therefore galaxies—5 billion light years across. The group of astronomers, led by Prof Lajos Balazs of Konkoly Observatory in Budapest, explains their study in a paper in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are the brightest events in the universe, discharging as much energy in a few seconds as our Sun does over its 10 billion year lifetime. They are supposed to be the outcome of massive stars collapsing into giant black holes. Their enormous glow helps astronomers to mark the position of distant galaxies, something the team exploited.
Artist illustration of Gamma-Ray Burst (via ShutterStock)

The GRBs that make up the recently exposed ring were detected using a range of space- and ground-based observatories. They seem to be at much related distances from us—around 7 billion light years—in a ring 36° across on the sky, or more than at least 70 times the diameter of the Full Moon. This suggests that this circle is more than 5 billion light years across, and according to Prof Balazs there is merely a 1 in 20,000 chance of the GRBs being in this spreading by chance. Most current models specify that the structure of the cosmos is unchanging on the largest scales. This ‘cosmological principle’ is supported by several observations of the early cosmos and its microwave background signature, comprehended by the WMAP and Planck satellites. Other current outcomes and this new detection challenge the principle, which sets a theoretical boundary of 1.2 billion light years for the largest structures.

A spheroidal ring projection would reflect the strings of clusters of galaxies observed to border voids in the cosmos; voids and string-like creations are seen and projected by several models of the cosmos. The recently discovered ring is nonetheless at least ten times bigger than known voids.

Prof Balazs says: “If we are right, this structure contradicts the current models of the universe. It was a huge surprise to find something this big—and we still don’t quite understand how it came to exist at all.”

The team now desires to find out more about this strange ring, and establish whether the acknowledged processes for galaxy development and large scale structure could have directed to its creation, or if astronomers need to fundamentally revise their concepts of the evolution of the cosmos.

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