Unlike grains of sand on a beach, matter is not uniformly spread throughout the Universe. Instead, it is concentrated into galaxies like our own which themselves congregate into clusters. These clusters are 'strung' throughout the Universe in a web-like structure. Astronomers have studied this large-scale structure of the nearby Universe but have lacked the instruments to extend the search to the large volumes of the distant Universe.
Thanks to its unrivalled sensitivity, in less than three hours, ESA's X-ray observatory XMM-Newton can see back about 7000 million years to a cosmological era when the Universe was about half its present size, and clusters of galaxies more tightly packed. Marguerite Pierre, CEA Saclay, France, with a European and Chilean team, used this ability to search for remote clusters of galaxies and map out their distribution.
The work heralds a new era of studying the distant Universe. The optical identification of clusters shows only the galaxies themselves. However, X-rays show the gas in between the galaxies – which is where most of the matter in a cluster resides. This is like going from seeing a city at night, where you only see the lighted windows, to seeing it during the daytime, when you finally get to see the buildings themselves.
Tracking down the clusters is a painstaking, multi-step process. In tandem with XMM-Newton, the team uses the four-metre Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to take an optical snapshot of the same region of space. A tailor-made computer program combs the XMM-Newton data looking for concentrations of X-rays that suggest large, extended structures. These are the clusters and represent only about 10% of the detected X-ray sources (the others are mostly distant active galaxies).
When the program finds a cluster, it zooms in on that region and converts the XMM-Newton data into a contour map of X-ray intensity, which it then superimposes on the CFHT optical image. The astronomers use this to check if anything is visible within the X-ray emission. If it is, the work then shifts to one of the world's largest telescopes, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) Very Large Telescope where the astronomers identify the individual galaxies in the cluster and take 'red-shift' measurements. These give a measurement of the cluster's distance.
In this way, Pierre and colleagues are mapping the distribution of galaxy clusters of the distant Universe, for the first time in astronomy. "Galaxy clusters are the largest concentrations of matter in the Universe and XMM-Newton is extremely efficient at finding them," says Pierre.
Although the task is still a work in progress, first results seem to confirm that the number of clusters 7000 million years ago is little different from that of today. This behaviour is predicted by models of the Universe that expand forever and drive the galaxy clusters further and further apart.
Eventually, it will be possible for the team to use their results to determine whether the expansion of the Universe is accelerating, as indicated by some other recent observations, or decelerating, as traditionally thought.
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