Size Does Matter, But So Does Dark Energy

Monday, October 21 2013 @ 03:26 pm EDT

Contributed by: dgrosvold

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

Digital mosaic of infrared light (courtesy of Spitzer) and visible light (SDSS) of the Coma Cluster, the largest member of the Coma Supercluster. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Goddard Space Flight Center / Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
Click image for larger view
Here in our own galactic backyard, the Milky Way contains some 200-400 billion stars, and that's not even the biggest galaxy in our own local group. Andromeda (M31) is even bigger and more massive than we are, made up of around a trillion stars! When you throw in the Triangulum Galaxy (M33), the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, and the dozens of dwarf galaxies and hundreds of globular clusters gravitationally bound to us and our nearest neighbors, our local group sure does seem impressive.

Yet that's just chicken feed compared to the largest structures in the universe. Giant clusters and superclusters of galaxies, containing thousands of times the mass of our entire local group, can be found omnidirectionally with telescope surveys. Perhaps the two most famous examples are the nearby Virgo Cluster and the somewhat more distant Coma Supercluster, the latter containing more than 3,000 galaxies. There are millions of giant clusters like this in our observable universe, and the gravitational forces at play are absolutely tremendous: there are literally quadrillions of times the mass of our Sun in these systems.

The largest superclusters line up along filaments, forming a great cosmic web of structure with huge intergalactic voids in between the galaxy-rich regions. These galaxy filaments span anywhere from hundreds of millions of light-years all the way up to more than a billion light years in length. The CfA2 Great Wall, the Sloan Great Wall, and most recently, the Huge-LQG (Large Quasar Group) are the largest known ones, with the Huge-LQG -- a group of at least 73 quasars – apparently stretching nearly 4 billion light years in its longest direction: more than 5% of the observable universe! With more mass than a million Milky Way galaxies in there, this structure is a puzzle for cosmology.

You see, with the normal matter, dark matter, and dark energy in our universe, there's an upper limit to the size of gravitationally bound filaments that should form. The Huge-LQG, if real, is more than double the size of that largest predicted structure, and this could cast doubts on the core principle of cosmology: that on the largest scales, the universe is roughly uniform everywhere. But this might not pose a problem at all, thanks to an unlikely culprit: dark energy. Just as the local group is part of the Virgo Supercluster but recedes from it, and the Leo Cluster -- a large member of the Coma Supercluster -- is accelerating away from Coma, it's conceivable that the Huge-LQG isn't a single, bound structure at all, but will eventually be driven apart by dark energy. Either way, we're just a tiny drop in the vast cosmic ocean, on the outskirts of its rich, yet barely fathomable depths.

Learn about the many ways in which NASA strives to uncover the mysteries of the universe: Kids can make their own clusters of galaxies by checking out The Space Place’s fun galactic mobile activity:

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