Hottest spot in the universe found

Space scientists have discovered the hottest place known in the Universe where temperatures reach an amazing 300 million degrees C.

A cloud of searing gas is surrounding a swarm of galaxies clustered together five billion light-years away in the constellation of Virgo.

Hot cluster
A photo of the cluster of galaxies RXJ1347 taken with the Hubble space telescope (left) and the same region pictured in X-ray light by Chandra. Image credit: NASA

The cosmic hotspot was detected by an X-ray telescope board a Japanese satellite called Suzaku. The cluster of galaxies, labelled RXJ1347, is five million light-years wide.

Scientists combined their results with X-ray images taken by NASA’s Chandra space telescope to reveal that the record-breaking gas is contained within an area 450,000 light-years wide that is shining like a spot light. (Chandra’s many other achievements include identifying brilliantly glowing blobs of gas in the farthest reaches of the Universe.)

Astronomers are puzzled because the gas seen in Virgo is many times hotter than any observed in galaxies before. By comparison, the centre of the sun is burning at “only” 15 million degrees C.

Their best bet to explain the gas’s searing temperatures is that the galaxies collided violently with another swarm of galaxies at a speed of 2,500 miles per second.

Assistant Professor Naomi Ota of the Tokyo University of Science said: “This is a terrible event. These collisions of galaxy clusters are the most violent celestial events in terms of energy since the Big Bang.” Read more of her report here.

Spectacular images of galaxies colliding have been collected by Hubble. And one particularly impressive cosmic pile-up was captured by Chandra and the giant Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Hawaii.

Chandra X-ray Observatory was launched from the cargo bay of Space Shuttle Columbia in 1999, into an orbit that takes it a third of the way to the Moon. A system of nested mirrors and a powerful imager allow this NASA telescope to observe X-ray light 100 times fainter and with much sharper resolution than any telescope before it from high-energy regions of the Universe, such as black holes and supernovae.

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• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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