An Unlikely Alignment

Researchers in South Africa have discovered something "bizarre" in our galaxy: A region of the distant universe where supermassive black holes are all spinning out radio jets in the same direction. Most likely, this is the result of primordial mass fluctuations in the early universe.

That said, this is the first time an alignment of the jets of galaxies over a large volume of space has been seen.

Caption: An image of the deep radio map covering the ELAIS-N1 region, with aligned galaxy jets. The image on the left has white circles around the aligned galaxies; the image on the right is without the circles. Credit: Prof. Russ Taylor

The discovery was made possible by a three-year, deep radio imaging survey of the radio waves coming from a region called ELAIS-N1 using the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT).

The jets are produced by the supermassive black holes at the centres of these galaxies, and the only way for this alignment to exist is if supermassive black holes are all spinning in the same direction, says Prof Andrew Russ Taylor, joint UWC/UCT SKA Chair, and principal author of the study.

"Since these black holes don't know about each other, or have any way of exchanging information or influencing each other directly over such vast scales, this spin alignment must have occurred during the formation of the galaxies in the early universe."

Cosmic Disturbances

This type of alignment has never been predicted by theories – and an unknown phenomenon like this presents a challenge: How exactly does this discovery fit into our early theories of the universe?

"We're beginning to understand how the large-scale structure of the universe came about, starting from the Big Bang and growing as a result of disturbances in the early universe, to what we have today," says Prof Taylor, "and that helps us explore what the universe of tomorrow will be like."

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