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Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/R. van Weeren et al; Optical: NAOJ/Subaru

Scientists discover a cosmic-scale particle accelerator

Entire galaxy clusters have been swept up in this phenomenon.
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X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/R. van Weeren et al; Optical: NAOJ/Subaru

Suddenly, even the Large Hadron Collider seems downright quaint. Researchers have found a combination of cosmic phenomena that's creating the universe's largest known particle accelerator. At least one supermassive black hole in a galaxy cluster has created a electromagnetic tunnel that's accelerating gas to high speeds, only for the gas to travel even faster as it interacts with shock waves from another cluster colliding with the first. The result is particles traveling at a significant portion of the speed of light -- no mean feat for anything that isn't, well, light.

They discovered the accelerator by merging X-ray data from the Chandra observatory with imaging from other facilities, including the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope, the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, the Keck Observatory and the Subaru telescope.

Astronomers have seen these behaviors in isolation before, but this is the first time they've witnessed both acting in concert. This also answers a riddle that has baffled scientists for a while: why were there gigantic twisting radio emissions emanating from the colliding clusters (Abell 3411 and Abell 3412)? It won't be shocking if there are other examples of this acceleration in the universe, but seeing just one has already explained a lot.

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