Astronomers have discovered the biggest-known structure in the universe, and it is not a star or a galaxy. It’s an incredibly big hole – a “supervoid”, to be precise. And when we say big, we mean 1.8 billion light-years across in diameter. Spherical in shape, the supervoid – which has been described as “the largest individual structure ever identified by humanity” – is characterized by its emptiness.
Scientists were able to discover it thanks to a targeted astronomical survey which revealed that approximately 10,000 galaxies were “missing” from the part of the universe it was in.
The search for the supervoid was conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Lead researcher István Szapudi and his team were searching for this supervoid as, according to them, its presence could explain the previous observations showing an unusually cool part of the area. This “Cold Spot” was discovered 10 years ago and continues to defy the current astrophysical models regarding the evolution of the universe following the Big Bang. Warm and cool spots of varying sizes would’ve been the norm in the rapidly evolving universe. However, the existence of areas as large and cold as this one was startling.
Contrary to what its name suggests, the supervoid is not a vacuum. It contains around 20 percent less stuff in it than any typical region. “Supervoids are not entirely empty, they’re under-dense,” said András Kovács, a co-author of the study findings at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest.
The drastically low temperatures of the Cold Spot are probably caused by the huge region of emptiness at its center which drains energy from light traveling through it. Photons of light would be expected to cool down by losing energy as they cross the void.
“The Cold Spot raised a lot of eyebrows. The real question was what was causing it and whether it was a challenge to orthodoxy,” said Prof. Carlos Frenk, a cosmologist at the University of Durham.
The supervoid may be relatively empty. However, its discovery is of great scientific value, as the universe is fairly evenly distributed at this spatial scale.
“This is the greatest supervoid ever discovered,” Kovács added. “In combination of size and emptiness, our supervoid is still a very rare event. We can only expect a few supervoids this big in the observable universe.”
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