Gracious! A great ball of fire

Scientists have discovered the biggest ball of fire ever spotted racing through the universe. The blazing gas is more than a billion times more massive than the Sun and three million light years wide – that is five billion times the size of our solar system.

It is speeding at nearly 500 miles a second through a distant cluster of galaxies called Abell 3266 in the constellations of Horologium and Reticulum.

The cosmic fireball was detected by an international team of astronomers using a European satellite called XMM-Newton that looks at the universe with X-ray eyes. It is many millions of light years away and so of no danger to the Earth.

Dr Alexis Finoguenov, of the University of Maryland, said: “The size and velocity of this gas ball is truly fantastic. We believe this is a massive ‘building block’ being delivered to one of the largest assemblies of galaxies we know.”

The fireball glows with a comet-like tail in the satellite pictures, although it is nothing like a comet in any other respect. The Abell 3266 cluster contains hundreds of galaxies and large amounts of hot gas heated to nearly one billion degrees. The scientists say both the cluster gas and the giant gas ball are held together by the gravitational attraction of unseen dark matter.

Dr Francesco Miniati, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, said: “What interests astronomers is not just the size of the gas ball but the role it plays in the formation and evolution of structure in the universe.”

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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