Hundreds of hidden nearby galaxies have been studied for the first time, shedding light on a mysterious gravitational anomaly dubbed the Great Attractor, which appears to be drawing the Milky Way and hundreds of thousands of other galaxies towards it with a gravitational force equivalent to a million billion Suns.
Despite being just 250 million light years from Earth–very close in astronomical terms–the new galaxies had been hidden from view until now by the Milky Way.
Using CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope equipped with an innovative receiver, an international team of scientists were able to see through the stars and dust of the Milky Way, into a previously unexplored region of space. Lead author Lister Staveley-Smith, from The University of Western Australia node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), said the team found 883 galaxies, a third of which had never been seen before.
“The Milky Way is very beautiful of course and it’s very interesting to study our own galaxy but it completely blocks out the view of the more distant galaxies behind it,” he said.
Staveley-Smith said scientists have been trying to get to the bottom of the mysterious Great Attractor since major deviations from universal expansion were first discovered in the 1970s and 1980s. “We don’t actually understand what’s causing this gravitational acceleration on the Milky Way or where it’s coming from,” he said.
The Milky Way resides in the outskirts of the Laniakea Supercluster, 500 million light-years in diameter and contains the mass of one hundred million billion Suns spread across 100,000 galaxies.. Within the boundaries of the Laniakea Supercluster, galaxy motions are directed inward, in the same way that water streams follow descending paths toward a valley.
The Great Attractor region is a large flat bottom gravitational valley with a sphere of attraction that extends across the Laniakea Supercluster.
“We know that in this region there are a few very large collections of galaxies we call clusters or superclusters, and our whole Milky Way is moving towards them at more than two million kilometers per hour.”
“Laniakea,” which means “immense heaven” in Hawaiian. This discovery clarifies the boundaries of our galactic neighborhood and establishes previously unrecognized linkages among various galaxy clusters in the local Universe.The Milky Way resides in the outskirts of the supercluster, whose extent has for the first time been carefully mapped using these new techniques. This so-called Laniakea Supercluster is 500 million light-years in diameter and contains the mass of one hundred million billion Suns spread across 100,000 galaxies.
This study also clarifies the role of the Great Attractor, a gravitational focal point in intergalactic space that influences the motion of our Local Group of galaxies and other galaxy clusters. Within the boundaries of the Laniakea Supercluster, galaxy motions are directed inward, in the same way that water streams follow descending paths toward a valley. The Great Attractor region is a large flat bottom gravitational valley with a sphere of attraction that extends across the Laniakea Supercluster.
The Milky Way and its neighboring Andromeda galaxy, along with some 30 smaller ones, form what is known as the Local Group, which lies on the outskirts of a “super cluster”—a grouping of thousands of galaxies—known as Virgo shown in the image above, which is also pulled toward the Great Attractor. Based on the velocities at these scales, the unseen mass inhabiting the voids between the galaxies and clusters of galaxies amounts to perhaps 10 times more than the visible matter.
Even so, adding this invisible material to luminous matter brings the average mass density of the universe still to within only 10-30 percent of the critical density needed to “close” the universe. This phenomena suggests that the universe be “open.” Cosmologists continue to debate this question, just as they are also trying to figure out the nature of the missing mass, or “dark matter.”
It is believed that this dark matter dictates the structure of the Universe on the grandest of scales. Dark matter gravitationally attracts normal matter, and it is this normal matter that astronomers see forming long thin walls of super-galactic clusters.
Recent measurements with telescopes and space probes of the distribution of mass in M31 -the largest galaxy in the neighborhood of the Milky Way- and other galaxies led to the recognition that galaxies are filled with dark matter and have shown that a mysterious force—a dark energy—fills the vacuum of empty space, accelerating the universe’s expansion.
Astronomers now recognize that the eventual fate of the universe is inextricably tied to the presence of dark energy and dark matter.The current standard model for cosmology describes a universe that is 70 percent dark energy, 25 percent dark matter, and only 5 percent normal matter.
We don’t know what dark energy is, or why it exists. On the other hand, particle theory tells us that, at the microscopic level, even a perfect vacuum bubbles with quantum particles that are a natural source of dark energy. But a naïve calculation of the dark energy generated from the vacuum yields a value 10120 times larger than the amount we observe. Some unknown physical process is required to eliminate most, but not all, of the vacuum energy, leaving enough left to drive the accelerating expansion of the universe.
A new theory of particle physics is required to explain this physical process. The new “dark attractor” theories skirt the so-called Copernican principle that posits that there is nothing special about us as observers of the universe suggesting that the universe is not homogeneous. These alternative theories explain the observed accelerated expansion of the universe without invoking dark energy, and instead assume we are near the center of a void, beyond which a denser “dark” attractor pulls outwards.
In a paper in Physical Review Letters, Pengjie Zhang at the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory and Albert Stebbins at Fermilab show that a popular void model, and many others aiming to replace dark energy, don’t stand up against telescope observation.
Galaxy surveys show the universe is homogeneous, at least on length scales up to a gigaparsec. Zhang and Stebbins argue that if larger scale inhomogeneities exist, they should be detectable as a temperature shift in the cosmic microwave background—relic photons from about 400,000 years after the big bang—that occurs because of electron-photon (inverse Compton) scattering.
Focusing on the “Hubble bubble” void model, they show that in such a scenario, some regions of the universe would expand faster than others, causing this temperature shift to be greater than what is expected. But telescopes that study the microwave background, such as the Atacama telescope in Chile or the South Pole telescope, don’t see such a large shift.
Though they can’t rule out more subtle violations of the Copernican principle, Zhang and Stebbins’ test reinforces Carl Sagan’s dictum that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
Superclusters are among the largest structures in the known Universe. They are made up of groups, like our own Local Group, that contain dozens of galaxies, and massive clusters that contain hundreds of galaxies, all interconnected in a web of filaments. Though these structures are interconnected, they have poorly defined boundaries.
“We have finally established the contours that define the supercluster of galaxies we can call home,” said R. Brent Tully, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “This is not unlike finding out for the first time that your hometown is actually part of much larger country that borders other nations.”
To better refine cosmic mapmaking, the researchers are proposing a new way to evaluate these large-scale galaxy structures by examining their impact on the motions of galaxies. A galaxy between structures will be caught in a gravitational tug-of-war in which the balance of the gravitational forces from the surrounding large-scale structures determines the galaxy’s motion.
By using the GBT and other radio telescopes to map the velocities of galaxies throughout our local Universe, the team was able to define the region of space where each supercluster dominates. “Green Bank Telescope observations have played a significant role in the research leading to this new understanding of the limits and relationships among a number of superclusters,” said Tully.
The name Laniakea was suggested by Nawa’a Napoleon, an associate professor of Hawaiian Language and chair of the Department of Languages, Linguistics, and Literature at Kapiolani Community College, a part of the University of Hawaii system. The name honors Polynesian navigators who used knowledge of the heavens to voyage across the immensity of the Pacific Ocean.
The GBT is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. Its location in the National Radio Quiet Zone and the West Virginia Radio Astronomy Zone protects the incredibly sensitive telescope from unwanted radio interference.
The new CSIRO research identified several new structures that could help to explain the movement of the Milky Way, including three galaxy concentrations (named NW1, NW2 and NW3) and two new clusters (named CW1 and CW2). The study involved researchers from Australia, South Africa, the U.S. and the Netherlands, and was published in the Astronomical Journal.
University of Cape Town astronomer Renée Kraan-Korteweg said astronomers have been trying to map the galaxy distribution hidden behind the Milky Way for decades.
“We’ve used a range of techniques but only radio observations have really succeeded in allowing us to see through the thickest foreground layer of dust and stars,” she said. “An average galaxy contains 100 billion stars, so finding hundreds of new galaxies hidden behind the Milky Way points to a lot of mass we didn’t know about until now.”
Source: The Daily Galaxy