The European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton telescope has turned up something truly weird (possible subscription wall):
Astronomers have spotted a huge cloud of fiery gas speeding through a distant cluster of galaxies. They say it is the biggest object of its kind ever seen.
The gas ball contains more matter than a 1,000 billion Suns, and is plunging through the Abell 3266 cluster of galaxies at about 750 kilometres per second. The fireball is about 3 million light years across, roughly 5 billion times the diameter of the Solar System, and reaches temperatures of tens of millions of degrees.
As unimaginably humongous balls of flaming gas go, this one’s a peripatetic:
The giant gas ball is mostly made from hydrogen, but contains much larger amounts of heavier elements than the surrounding cluster, suggesting that it is a stranger to the area.
If you think that nobody has a clue how this thing works, look for the tells:
Why, then, does the superheated fireball not fly apart? According to Mark Henriksen, also a member of the research team at UMBC, the answer is dark matter.
Dark matter is thought to make up more than 80% of the Universe’s mass. Being dark, it is invisible and has never been identified: but astronomers believe that its gravitational pull helps to explain why all sorts of large-scale structures, from individual galaxies to superclusters that contain thousands of the things, don’t fly apart.
Better-informed readers will surely prove me wrong, but it seems that “dark matter” is the astronomer’s all-purpose jackalope, their version of Reagan’s magic asterisks. Somebody might explain some day how the heck this thing works, but for now we just plug in ‘dark matter’ and hope that this friendly media person asks about something else.
Oh yeah, because I’m a dork I immediately thought of this: