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Image: Galaxy cluster Abell 3667
E. Carretti et al, MNRAS
A picture of the galaxy cluster Abell 3667, including the newly found bridge-like structure about 13 million light years long.
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updated 2/1/2013 2:18:46 PM ET 2013-02-01T19:18:46

A glowing cosmic structure millions of light-years long represents the aftermath of the impact of two merging galaxy clusters, researchers say.

"This is one of the biggest structures ever observed," study lead author Ettore Carretti told Space.com. "It is more than 100 times the size of our galaxy, the Milky Way, which already stretches for 100,000 light-years."

Carretti, an astrophysicist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia, and his colleagues used the Parkes Radio Telescope in New South Wales to analyze a cluster of galaxies known as Abell 3667. The cluster lies about 730 million light-years from Earth. (A light-year is the distance light travels in one year, about 5.9 trillion miles, or 9.5 trillion kilometers.)

"Clusters of galaxies are made of thousands of galaxies and are among the largest gravitationally bound structures," Carretti noted.

The researchers detected a diffuse radio glow in the gas and dust connecting the cluster's periphery to its core. The structure is about 13 million light-years long. [Biggest Structure in the Universe Explained (Infographic)]

Carretti said: "This is the first clear imaging of a huge impact between two merging clusters of galaxies. The overall structure we observe, part of which was already known, is a monster shock wave and its trailing wake caused by the cluster impact. The wake is the leftover after the passage of the shock, which leaves behind a turbulent 'shaken' medium."

The shock wave is expanding at a speed of about 2.6 million miles per hour (4.3 million kilometers per hour).

"This means that the overall structure we observe has taken some 2 billion years to form," Carretti said. "This is a long time, even compared to the age of the universe, which is 13.7 billion years. So what we observe has taken 15 percent of the age of the universe to form. These are huge structures and take cosmological times to form, and it is still expanding and evolving."

It remains uncertain how the merging clusters produced this glow. The researchers suggest the turbulence from the collision sent electrons zipping at near-light speeds, making them shine with radio waves in the process.

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This kind of structure was predicted by cosmological simulations of galaxy cluster formation "but was never clearly pictured before," Carretti said. "Our results seem to confirm what was predicted by the simulations and will help understand how galaxy clusters formed and evolve."

The researchers want to check other galaxy clusters for similar structures. "We want to understand how common such very large-scale structures are and what would be the implications in understanding the formation and the evolution of the galaxy clusters," Carretti said.

The scientists will detail their findings in an upcoming issue of the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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