We’re confined to the surface of our planet in our relatively calm solar system, in a quaint suburb of the Milky Way. But just point your household space observatory towards any point in the night sky and you’ll find some peculiar stuff.
Hollywood has no shortage of suggestions to what we might find in the deepest reaches of outer space but, come on, you already know that reality far outweighs fiction, especially when considering the cosmos. Don’t believe me? Here:
The Biggest Star
Let me remind you that we’ve only charted a tiny fraction of the sky so the future is open for surprises. For some time, astronomers considered VY Canis Major the largest star ever observed. Its radius was so big that it contradicted the stellar evolutionary theory. To put things into perspective, our sun is a G-class star with a radius of almost 700,000 kilometers ( 435,000 miles) and we’re absolutely fine with that. The radius of VY Canis Major was thought to be 1800-2200 times that of our sun. That meant that even at its most conservative size, if it were to replace our sun, it would have extended past Jupiter’s orbit.
More recent measurements have scaled down this behemoth, to a measly radius 1,400 times that of our sun. Other stars are competing for the number one spot but they’re all in the 1,600-,1700 solar radii area. Accurately measuring their sizes is tricky business, much like figuring the size of a candle’s flame from 100 miles away with nothing but hand binoculars.
Big deal, you might say, we’ve got that here on Earth. Indeed we do, but it’s a lot only when compared to our tiny size in the grand cosmic scale.
In 2011 two teams of astronomers discovered the largest and farthest water reservoir in the universe. It’s located 12 billion light years away and it holds 140 trillion times more water than our planetary ocean. It orbits around a supermassive black hole 20 billion times the mass of our sun. These black holes are called quasars and the only thing as big as their appetites is the amount of energy they spew out. This particular quasar emits the energy of a thousand trillion suns. Seems like water isn’t that rare of a gem in outer space.
If water isn’t your cup of tea, there’s alcohol out there as well. Near the center of our galaxy there’s an interstellar cloud called Sagittarius B2. Inside it, scientists discovered giant filaments, the largest one spanning for 288 billion miles ( 463 billion km) and these filaments contain alcohol. Ten billion trillion liters to be more precise. While most of it is methanol (bad), there’s a small fraction of ethanol (not so bad) floating around in Sagittarius B.
As an added bonus, the cloud also contains molecules of ethyl formate, the stuff that smells like rum and gives raspberries their flavor.
Imagine you’re a star in a binary star system. You’re happily orbiting your star partner when suddenly ( actually, over the course of millions of years) both of you are being dragged off towards the massive black hole at the center of your galaxy. In a dashing display of space altruism, your partner star swings you away from the black hole, dooming him/herself but saving you. Out of panic and grief, you end up flooring it, getting as far away as possible from that star murderer.
Basically, this is how hypervelocity stars are born. The surviving star ends up blasting through space at speeds in excess of two million miles per hour, ten times faster than regular stars. For the time being, we’re safe from being rear-ended by one of these teary-eyed rogues since they’re more prevalent near the center of our galaxy. They aren’t even the most dangerous speeders out there. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the cosmic equivalent of a road-raging Russian truck driver:
A Supermassive Black Hole On The Run
Astronomers from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory were studying a system called CID-42 in the center of a galaxy some 3 billion light-years away when they saw something spectacular. The data analysis suggests that two giant black holes collided and one of them ended up being slingshot into space. The scientific term is recoil kick from gravitational wave radiation but in layman terms we can describe it as runaway giant black hole hauling ass at breakneck space speed. Seems more appropriate.
This is a video simulation of the way things might have played out. The white dot jettisoned at the end represents the black hole.
Space–beautiful but deadly, much like an Angelina Jolie-shaped nuclear warhead.