Virgo Galaxy Cluster Reveals Universe's Chemical Makeup

First Posted: Oct 27, 2015 01:45 PM EDT

Researchers were able to detect the elements that created planets, stars and people by examining the hot, X-ray emitting gases in the Virgo galaxy cluster, and they found that these elements were evenly distributed across millions of light years, according to a news release.

"This means that elements so important to life on Earth are available, on average, in similar relative proportions throughout the bulk of the universe," said Aurora Simionescu, who led the study, an astrophysicist at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in Sagamihara"In other words, the chemical requirements for life are common throughout the cosmos."

The Virgo cluster is 54 million light years away and it is the closest grouping of galaxies to the Milky Way. Researchers reveal that it is the second brightest in X-rays. There are an average of 2000 galaxies in the Virgo cluster. The space between the galaxies is filled with exceedingly hot diffused gas, which glows in X-rays, according to the researchers.

This study enabled the researchers to detect the chemical compositions which created life in the universe. Simionescu and her colleagues used Japan's Suzaku X-ray satellite to conduct their observations. They were able to map four different angles of the Virgo cluster, which extended to five million light years from the center.

"Heavier chemical elements from carbon on up are produced and distributed into interstellar space by stars that explode as supernovae at the ends of their lifetimes," Simionescu said.

The chemical dispersion expands on large scales through other mechanisms such as galactic outflows, interactions and mergers with neighboring galaxies, and stripping caused by a galaxy's motion through the hot gas filling galaxy clusters, according to the researchers.

"One way to think about this is that we're looking for the supernova recipe that produced the chemical makeup we see on much larger scales, and comparing it with the recipe for our own sun," said Norbert Werner, co-author of the study and researcher at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) at Stanford University in California. 

A supernova is a stellar explosion that slightly outshines an entire galaxy and it radiates as much energy as the sun or an as much as an ordinary star would emit through its entire life span. Different types of supernovae produce different types of chemicals compositions. Some of them scatter elements which ranges from oxygen to silicon and even heavier elements like iron and nickel. The dispersion of these elements allows astronomers to determine how, when and where they were produced.

This marked the first time researchers detected iron, magnesium, silicon and sulfur across a galaxy cluster. The element distributions were consistent with the composition of the sun along with most of the stars in our galaxy. The study found that the chemical elements are evenly dispersed and the same variations that were necessary for creating the solar system. This took place when the universe was about 2 and 4 billion years old.  At this time, stars were created at the fastest rate in cosmic history, according to the researchers. 

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