‘Largest structure in the universe’ undermines fundamental cosmic principles

largest structure in universe discovered grb
NASA/Swift/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith and John Jones

Just in time for the hype surrounding No Man’s Sky, the game that takes cosmic scale to the extreme, a team of astronomers say they’ve discovered what might be the largest structure in the observable universe. The tremendous feature consists of nine gamma-ray bursts (GRB), forming a ring that is streaking across some 5 billion light years through space, according to a paper published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“We were totally surprised…we did not expect to find it.”

The ring’s diameter stretches more than 70 times that of the full moon as seen from Earth. And, as the GRBs each appear to be about 7 billion light years away, the probability that these features are positioned in this way by chance is just one in 20,000, according to lead author Professor Lajos Balazs from the Konkoly Observatory in Budapest.

Image of the distribution of gamma-ray bursts (blue dots).

Image of the massive feature as a distribution of gamma-ray bursts (blue dots).

Amazingly, the team of astronomers discovered the cosmic ring by accident. “Originally, we studied the space distribution of gamma ray bursts,” Balazs told Digital Trends. “GRBs are the most energetic transients in the universe and the only observed objects sampling the observable universe as a whole. In general, we were interested to conclude whether the universe is homogeneous and isotropic on large scale.

“We were totally surprised,” he added, “because we did not expect to find it.”

However, there are reasons to step back and reconsider the discovery — it seems to undermine our established understanding of how the universe developed.

“We still don’t quite understand how it came to exist at all.”

According to the cosmological principle, the structure of the universe is uniform at its largest scale and its largest structures are theoretically limited to 1.2 billion light years across. This new discovery pushes that limit nearly five-fold.

Balazs and his team used telescopes in space and observatories on Earth to identify the structure. They will now investigate whether the cosmological principle and other processes of galaxy formation can account for the ring structure. If not, theories about the formation of the cosmos may need to be rewritten.

“If we are right,” Balazs commented in a press release, “this structure contradicts the current models of the universe. It was a huge surprise to find something this big – and we still don’t quite understand how it came to exist at all.”