Magazine article Science News

Galaxy Cluster Extremely Fertile: Stars Turned out Fast Thanks to a Lazy Central Black Hole

Magazine article Science News

Galaxy Cluster Extremely Fertile: Stars Turned out Fast Thanks to a Lazy Central Black Hole

Article excerpt

Nearly 6 billion light-years away, one of the most massive galaxy clusters ever seen is birthing stars at an incredible rate, with its central galaxy producing more than 700 suns per year in its cold, cold heart.

"It should be producing less than one, and it's producing 740," says Michael McDonald of MIT, coauthor of a study describing the cluster in the Aug. 16 Nature.

Called "Phoenix" by the team for its location in the constellation Phoenix-its official name is SPT-CLJ2344-4243--the cluster comprises roughly 1,000 galaxies, is more than 4 million light-years across, and contains more mass than 2,000 Milky Ways.

In other words, it's big.

It's bright, too: The galactic conglomerate is the most luminous cluster ever observed in the X-ray spectrum. The star-birthing galaxy center is 50 times larger than the Milky Way. "It's kind of the boss galaxy," McDonald says.

The cluster's cold core and excessive fertility suggest the presence of a slacker black hole at the galaxy's center. Normally, radiation from a supermassive black hole--in this case, something around 10 billion times the mass of the sun--warms the surrounding environment, making it hard for gas to coalesce into stars. Whether this black hole is simply overworked, permanently off duty or just taking a break is unclear, but scientists think they've captured the cluster at an exceptionally frisky moment.

"Stars are forming at a much higher rate than we've seen before in any of these galaxies," says astrophysicist Martin Rees of the University of Cambridge in England. "It's a fascinating step toward putting this picture together of the tussle between the black holes and the star formation."

But the rate of star formation in the cluster may be somewhat overestimated, says astronomer Andrew Fabian, also at Cambridge. "There's no doubt that they've found a really exciting and fascinating object," he says. …

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