Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Bullet Cluster

Composite image of the Bullet Cluster.

When individual galaxies collide and spiral into one another, they discard trails of hot gas that stretch across space, providing signposts to the mayhem. Recognising the signs of collisions between whole clusters of galaxies, however, is not as easy.

The orbiting X-ray telescopes XXM-Newton and Chandra have caught a pair of galaxy clusters merging into a giant cluster. The discovery adds to existing evidence that galaxy clusters can collide faster than previously thought.

During the collision the hot gas (shown in pink) in each cluster is slowed and distorted by a drag force, similar to air resistance. A bullet-shaped cloud of gas forms in one of the clusters.

The optical image from the Magellan and the Hubble Space Telescope shows galaxies in orange and white in the background. Hot gas, which contains the bulk of the normal matter in the cluster, is shown by the Chandra X-ray image, which shows the hot intracluster gas in pink. Gravitational lensing and the distortion of background images by mass in the cluster, reveals the mass of the cluster may be dominated by dark matter (blue), an exotic form of matter abundant in the Universe, with very different properties compared to normal matter.

Major cluster-cluster collisions are expected to be rare, with estimates of their frequency ranging from less than one in a thousand clusters to one in a hundred. On collision, their internal gas is thrown out of equilibrium and if unrecognised, causes underestimation of its mass by between 5 and 20 percent.

This is important because the masses of the various galaxy clusters are used to estimate the cosmological parameters that describe how the Universe expands. So, identifying colliding systems is extremely important to our understanding of the Universe.

X-ray satellites discover the biggest collisions in the Universe from ESA
Image Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/M.Markevitch, Optical and lensing map: NASA/STScI, Magellan/U.Arizona/D.Clowe, Lensing map: ESO WFI

Biggest Collisions in the Universe from Universe Today
A Close Stellar Encounter? debris disk around HD 15115 from Centauri Dreams

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