Astronomers discovered an explosion 10 times brighter than any supernova

It is the largest cosmic explosion ever observed.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of a cosmic explosion.
An artist's impression of a cosmic explosion.

cofeekai / iStock 

An international team of astronomers led by the University of Southampton in the U.K. has discovered the largest cosmic explosion in history, a press statement reveals.

The newly-discovered explosion is over ten times brighter than any known supernova. It is also three times brighter than the brightest recorded disruption event — the light emitted when a supermassive black hole devours a star.

The largest explosion ever observed

The explosion, dubbed AT2021lwx, is still going and has lasted more than three years. By comparison, most supernovae are only visible for a few months before they peter out.

The AT2021lwx explosion is located roughly 8 billion light years away, meaning it occurred when the universe was about 6 billion years old. The researchers described the explosion in a new paper published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Based on their observations, the team of scientists believes the explosion was likely caused by a massive cloud of hydrogen gas, thousands of times larger than our Sun, that was disrupted by a supermassive black hole. During that event, parts of the cloud would have been devoured by the black hole, while shockwaves would have emanated out through the remnants.

AT2021lwx isn't the brightest cosmic explosion ever observed. That honor goes to a gamma-ray burst called GRB 221009A, discovered last year. However, GRB 221009A lasted for a fraction of the time, meaning the energy generated by AT2021lwx is far greater.

AT2021lwx was discovered in 2020 by astronomers at the Zwicky Transient Facility in California. It has subsequently been observed by a number of telescopes, including the Gran Telescopio Canarias in La Palma, Spain.

"We came upon this by chance, as it was flagged by our search algorithm when we were searching for a type of supernova," explained Dr. Philip Wiseman, Research Fellow at the University of Southampton and study lead. "Most supernovae and tidal disruption events only last for a couple of months before fading away. For something to be bright for two plus years was immediately very unusual."

Measuring a massive explosion 8 billion light-years away

The researchers measured the distance between Earth and AT2021lwx via spectroscopy; they analyzed the spectrum of the light emanating from the massive explosion and measured different absorption and emission features of the spectrum.

Though the team has been analyzing the gargantuan explosion since 2020, they still aim to collect more data and measure it via different wavelengths, including X-rays. They will also use advanced computer simulations to gain a better understanding of the most powerful explosion ever seen.

As Dr. Wiseman pointed out: "With new facilities, like the Vera Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time, coming online in the next few years, we are hoping to discover more events like this and learn more about them. It could be that these events, although extremely rare, are so energetic that they are key processes to how the centers of galaxies change over time."

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