Astronomers question their science after distant galaxy emits strange radio signals that are ‘pointing in the wrong direction’

Representative image of galaxy cluster MACS J0717

(X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/van Weeren et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA)

The apple falls from the tree because gravity follows exact rules on our planet. We feel sleepy after eating rice because it helps release calming hormones in our bodies. In nature, everything is organized and in place. But every now and then he likes to throw a wrench in the works, seemingly just to play with the confused scientists brave enough to study natural law.

That’s exactly what’s happening to a particularly cheeky galaxy cluster called Abell 3266, whose recent strange outbursts have had astronomers and physicists pulling their hair out and rummaging through their books to find some explanation for its strange behavior.

But before we get into the complex (and magnificent) cosmic mess that these galaxy clusters are, let’s try to understand it in terms that everyone is extremely familiar with: fossils!

The fossils of ancient space cities

We know that dinosaurs and other flora existed long before us because they left tangible evidence that we can study. In the same way that we could date these ancient fossils to determine exactly how old they were, scientists are also using similar techniques to study the radio emissions of dying supermassive black holes in space, which are essentially the “fossils” of these magnificent space giants.

Radio emissions are a kind of “invisible” light emitted by celestial bodies that radio astronomers study to understand their composition and age, among other things. His research has revealed some of the universe’s most amazing and well-kept secrets, such as the origin of the Big Bang by examining the infamous cosmic microwave background radiation.

A large part of what makes the cluster is plasma, a chaotic state of matter that forms when gas is heated to 10 million degrees Celsius. When radio waves are generated through this plasma, certain known patterns emerge that scientists categorize to gain insight into the galactic environment.

So what’s going on with the Abell 3266?

Although the details of many of these radio relics from colliding clusters and supermassive black holes still remain elusive to us, their very existence gives us basic answers to some simple questions. If there is a shadow, we know that something opaque exists to cast it. But Abel, the cluster 800 million light years away, was already an enigma, because although it met all the conditions, it did not cast the proverbial shadow!

The cluster had no detectable radio relics until recently. And when Australian scientists tried to study it using the combined power of more than three separate powerful satellite arrays, they noticed that some of the extremely elusive emissions challenged everything they thought they knew about them.

Radio emissions emitted from one part of the cluster formed an arc like sonic boom, possibly driven by shock waves traveling through the plasma from some massive cosmic collision. However, its highly unusual concave shape puzzled radio scientists, as they had never seen anything like it before. Plus, its odd orientation, facing away from the center of the cluster, has earned it the nickname “wrong relic.”

“If it’s a shock wave, you might think it would bend like an arc around the edge, but this one is flipped around,” explained one of the astrophysicists behind the study, Dr. Tessa Wernstrom. “So we don’t really understand what this is telling us.”

A new type of science?

Dr. Wernstrom adds that her team believes this is real and likely not an error from image processing. Furthermore, the unexpected brightness of the relic also meant that there were huge gaps in understanding how these radiofossils behaved, and that scientists had to go back to the drawing board to form explanations.

“Maybe there’s some new physics going on there that we haven’t fully understood when our models can’t match the observations,” she added.

Colliding galaxy clusters, like some in Abell 3266, are scary places in space that make scientists tingle with excitement, but also send a rattle to their bones. These environments have so much plasma and dark matter activity that they produce a wide variety of data that would otherwise be impossible to collect in a laboratory.

Abell 3266, in particular, is a special cluster because it has many anomalies and rare phenomena that are absent from most other observed clusters or simply not yet discovered. However, it also serves as a testament to the growing power of radio telescopes and the exciting possibility of exploring the rest of the universe.

“Looking at the radio, you’re seeing some different physics than when you’re looking at the other wavelengths,” explains Dr. Wernstrom. “We’re going to see a lot more of this kind of thing.”

The study was published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Societyand can be accessed here.

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