The next thing antiscientists can panic people about…

Contributed by
Jun 25, 2006

... is a giant "ball of fire" in space.

Of course, they will have to neglect to mention it's 250 million light years from Earth. Feeling lazy? I'll convert it for you: that's 1,500,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles. Probably too far to do us any damage, but that didn't stop Eric Julien. Of course, Deutsch would suppress this finding...

Anyway, the ball of fire is actually a tremendous ball of gas, something like 3 million light years across! That's 30 times the size of our Milky Way Galaxy, and actually about the distance between us and the Andromeda Galaxy. That's big.

It's presumably composed of primordial hydrogen that condensed after the Big Bang. It's massive, something like 13 trillion of times the mass of the Sun, big enough to form whole galaxies (the Milky Way is maybe 400 billion times the mass of the Sun). This thing is a monster. It's actually not a ball of fire, and in fact is probably fairly cold. But still the description as a ball of fire isn't too far off.

The huge ball of cold gas is inside a cluster of galaxies called Abell 3266. There is pre-existing gas inside the cluster, between the galaxies. It's hot, millions of degrees hot. The cold gas is falling through this stuff. Like an ice cube moving through boiling water, gas is stripped off the cold ball. The rate at which it loses gas is staggering: about 20 solar masses per day. That means it outgasses enough in one day to create 20 stars like the Sun. That's 7000 suns a year, and a million in just over a century.

Come to think of it, when I was a kid we had an old dog like that. Haha! I'm here every day, folks. Two drink minimum.

Anyway, this is pretty neat. When the gas comes off the ball it mixes with the much hotter gas and gets dispersed in between the galaxies. That's why it's described as a ball of fire; it's streaming off matter like a comet, which is heated up by all the turbulence it creates in the hotter gas.

Eventually, though, it may cool (by emitting X-rays, which is how this stuff was found in the first place) and fall into the center of the cluster. A massive galaxy sits there, and will get bigger as the gas falls into it, and possibly form more stars from it. If this does happen, we're talking a long time from now, like millions or more likely billions of years. Still, what we're seeing now may be the precursor of star formation on a vast scale.

So that's not scary at all. It means that even at a more advanced age, the Universe will still be cranking out stars. I think that's good news. It's nice to know that a few billion years from now, long after the Sun has died away, there may be more stars to take its place.

It looks like I wasn't the only one to think of this antiscience angle. SpaceTramp did too.

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