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  • October 18, 2002
    Magnetic bubbles could help explain design of galaxy clusters
    By Andrea Gibson

    If astronomers created a blueprint of the universe, they'd pencil in such elements as stars, galaxies, and hot gases. But what holds all that together in space? The details are hazy, but astronomers are now beginning to sketch the framework.

    Gravity plays the biggest role in shaping the structure of our universe. But in some parts of the cosmos, such as in galaxy clusters - the basic building blocks of the universe - magnetism also may be important, scientists have found. Astronomers have been stumped, however, about the origin of those magnetic forces.

    Chandra X-Ray Telescope The answer may be a series of enormous cosmic "bubbles" that Ohio University astronomer Brian McNamara and colleagues spotted using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, an orbiting spacecraft that houses the most powerful X-ray telescope in existence. Chandra observed these bubbles rising out of a galaxy cluster about 1 billion light years away from Earth, like bubbles floating out of a glass of soda pop, McNamara says.

    The bubbles, which McNamara and his colleagues believe are filled with magnetism, could explain the strong magnetic forces that make up the design of galaxy clusters. Something so powerful isnıt as small as soda fizz, of course. Each of the bubbles is almost as big as our own Milky Way galaxy, and they may be relics of an ancient explosion in the universe more than 100 million years ago.

    "Weıve known for the past 15 to 20 years that magnetic fields exist, but we didn't understand how they got there," says McNamara, an associate professor of physics and astronomy whose research is funded by NASA. "This could be a viable mechanism."

    These bubbles - which the astronomers have dubbed "ghost cavities" - also may play an indirect role in the creation of new stars in today's galaxies, and may have helped create the cosmic framework in the early stages of the universe.

    "We think magnetism, in some locations of the universe, could have been as important as gravity in shaping the overall structure," says McNamara, who presented the findings earlier this year at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

    The scientists are continuing to add details to this celestial blueprint, conducting a further analysis of the properties of ghost cavities and their role in galaxy clusters.

    "We have a sketch of whatıs going on," McNamara says. "But the details are foggy at this point."


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