What is much, much bigger than the Milky Way? No, it is not our super-functional mobile casino South Africa. It is a radio wave-emitting super massive black hole recently discovered by South African astronomers. If you want to know what radio galaxies are, here is a guide for dummies, by dummies!
One MeerKAT Versus Two Celestial Beasts
To be clear – it wasn’t one radio galaxy local astronomers zoomed into with the MeerKAT radio telescope, it was two… and that is a big deal in the world of cosmology. Why? Well, it is not so much to do with the number of celestial beasts that were tracked down in the skies above, it is the tiny region of space that happens to play host to both these ginormous systems.
According to the smart fellas who talk light years above our heads, the massive galaxies were found in a small patch of sky approximately four times the area of the full moon. That is around 38 million square kilometres… or less than a tenth of the 510,1 million square kilometres that make up the total surface area of Mother Earth.
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What is a radio galaxy?
A radio galaxy is essentially an active celestial system that is brightly lit up at radio wave lengths. In other words, it is an example of a luminous radio source in space. Although that might sound unique, the truth is that nearly all astronomical objects emit some sort of radio radiation. Along with nebulae, pulsars and quasars, radio galaxies are the most powerful source of radiation in the universe.
The defining characteristic of radio galaxies are the enormous visible jets of radiation that explode along one axis. These jets are created by electrons that are spiralling in magnetic fields at the speed of light – which to us mere mortals is around 299,792 kilometres per second!
What Activates Radio Galaxies?
How do radio galaxies become active? All galaxies, including our very own Milky Way, have a super massive black hole at their centre point. When large volumes of cosmic gas start to orbit and fall into the black hole, it triggers the black hole which instantaneously releases huge amounts of energy in the form of jets of radio light. When that happens, the black hole morphs into a radio galaxy. Got it? Active black hole = radio galaxy!
What are the chances of finding two massive radio galaxies in an area of sky that is less than that of the continent of Asia? Lower than 0.0003%. That is only a little better than the 0.00015% probability, or 1 in 649,740 chance, you have of hitting a royal flush when you play video poker at the #1 mobile casino South Africa!
How Big are the Newly Discovered Giant Radio Galaxies?
How big are the brand-new radio galaxies discovered right here in South Africa? They are around two mega-parsecs across. What does that mean in terms that we can understand?
Well, each of the radio galaxies – which, by the way, are still to be named but we quite fancy Springbok and Casino – are more than 60 x the size of the Milky Way. According to NASA, the Milky Way is about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometres across! When you times that by 60, you get a grand total of 60 quintillion kilometres and that is large, very large.
How does that compare with the 800 odd giant radio galaxies that have already been found? As a rule, they all have jets of more than 700,000 kilo-parsecs in size. That, however, is pretty paltry when you consider they are around a third of the size of our newly-found Proudly South African mega galaxies!
The Size of Radio Galaxies Signifies Age
What is the significance of size when it comes to radio galaxies? Astronomers believe that size is an indication of age. Let’s face it, it obviously takes a seriously long time for jets to expand outwards to the enormous dimensions they have. That of course means that our radio galaxies can easily be in the region of several hundred million years old!
If the dinosaurs of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods cast their eyes skywards, they may just have caught a glimpse of the first jets of radio light as they thrust slowly outwards into space! Now that is a mind-boggling thought!
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