Scientists Discovered the Biggest Object in the Universe — And It's Not What You Think

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

Space scientists claim to have identified the biggest single structure ever observed in the known universe. It's not an exceptionally huge galaxy, a gigantic nebula or even a super-massive black hole.

It's practically nothing. Literally.

Astronomers working at the University of Hawaii at Manoa have identified a "supervoid" measuring an incredible 1.8 billion light-years across. Within the supervoid, there are approximately 10,000 fewer galaxies (roughly 20% less matter) than other comparable regions of space.

Aside from the universe itself, this incomprehensibly vast supervoid might be the single biggest structure ever identified by science.

Map of cosmic microwave background radiation created using the Planck satellite.
Source: 
ESA Planck Collaboration via Royal Astronomical Society

The science: Current physics models theorize that the Big Bang created a universe in which matter was relatively evenly distributed, making the relatively empty, so-called "Cold Spot" hard to explain. 

According to Wired, "statistically the spot sits far outside the standard fluctuations in temperature in the cosmic microwave background anticipated by standard physics." Some particularly exotic hypotheses have suggested that the Cold Spot might be a window into another universe (although no one can tell if it's one where everyone is evil and grows pointy beards).

The new study, headed by the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Istvan Szapudi, used data from Hawaii's Pan-STARRS1 telescope and NASA's Wide Field Explorer Survey satellite to count the number of galaxies in an area of space between us and the Cold Spot, about 3 billion light-years away.

Szapudi's team concluded that some of the CMB variation in the Cold Spot could be explained away by a so-called supervoid, described in a press release as an "extremely rare large-scale structure in the mass distribution of the universe." Basically, the supervoid is a stretch of reality in which fewer guests showed up to the party. Like any bad party, it siphons energy from things passing through it. Thanks to the accelerating expansion of the universe, light entering the void leaves it "with less energy, and therefore at a longer wavelength, which corresponds to a colder temperature."

This void would be much larger than any other known structure. For comparison, the neighboring 1 billion light-years surrounding Earth contain around 100 galactic superclusters.

Source: YouTube

Why it's important: For one, the study is more solid evidence that the Cold Spot isn't the result of a statistical error, and it seems to fit the hypothesis of a universe undergoing accelerated expansion. But the mere existence of the supervoid is baffling, because scientists currently have little understanding of how it could form. No one can adequately explain just where this hole in the universe came from. Somewhat frustratingly, the supervoid could also only explain about 10% of the cosmic microwave background difference seen in the Cold Spot.

"It just pushed the explanation one layer deeper," Imperial College London cosmologist Roberto Trotta told the Guardian. "Now we have to figure out how does the void itself form. It's still a rare event."

Far be it from us to impose our limited understanding of the world onto the vast and only partially explained cosmos. But it's kind of funny that physicists' attempts to understand the cosmos just spilled into a literal hole. Maybe at some point in the distant future, one of our spacefaring descendants can complete the cycle of human thinking and get hopelessly lost in it.

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Tom McKay

Tom is a staff writer at Mic, covering national politics, media, policing and the war on drugs. He is based in New York and can be reached at tmckay@mic.com.

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