Scientists using the eROSITA X-ray telescope have revealed a treasure of data revealing over 900,000 objects in space, including 700,000 supermassive black holes and other ‘exotic’ phenomena.

Key takeaways

  • Scientists using the eROSITA X-ray telescope have discovered over 900,000 space objects, including 700,000 supermassive black holes.
  • This survey created the most detailed X-ray atlas of the universe ever, revealing fascinating deep-space phenomena and the light from almost 700,000 giant black holes.
  • In just 6 months, eROSITA detected more sources than previous flagship missions did in nearly 25 years, capturing more than 170 million X-ray photons.
  • One notable discovery is a massive filament of hot gas, more than 42 million light-years long, connecting two galaxy clusters and likely part of the cosmic web.
  • The project has already led to over 50 new research papers, adding to the more than 200 papers based on previous eROSITA findings, significantly enhancing our understanding of the universe.
The sky section of the eROSITA All-Sky Survey catalog in two different representations. The left image shows extended X-ray emission, while the right image shows point-like X-ray sources. (Image credit: MPE, J. Sanders für das eROSITA-Konsortium)

Astronomers have shown the biggest and most comprehensive X-ray atlas of the cosmos ever generated. The newly published data show the light from almost 700,000 giant black holes, a strange “bridge” of gas joining distant galaxies, and hundreds of thousands of other “exotic” deep-space phenomena.

The eROSITA All-Sky Survey, which will scan the whole sky from December 2019 to June 2020 using the eROSITA X-ray telescope, is responsible for the large new X-ray data release. During that time, the survey detected more than 170 million X-ray photons (light particles) in the sky, which astronomers later identified as approximately 900,000 distinct objects in space, the majority of which are supermassive black holes, according to a statement from Germany’s Max Planck Society, which assisted in mission management.

“These are mind-blowing numbers for X-ray astronomy,” said Andrea Merloni, eROSITA’s chief investigator and lead author of a new publication summarizing the mission’s results. “We’ve detected more sources in 6 months than the big flagship missions XMM-Newton and Chandra have done in nearly 25 years of operation,” Merloni said, referring to the X-ray observatories being run by the European Space Agency and NASA, respectively.

X-rays are a type of high-energy radiation that is undetectable to the human eye. The majority of X-ray emissions in space are caused by concentrations of extremely hot gases, which can be found in massive galaxy clusters, supernova remnants such as the famous Crab Nebula, or active black holes, which can outshine entire galaxies as hot, fast-moving matter falls into their insatiable maws. Studying cosmic X-rays can disclose not just enormous, high-energy objects like this, but also the universe’s overall structure.

An eROSITA X-ray image with the newly discovered filament between two galaxy clusters more than 42 million light-years apart. (Image credit: Dietl et al. (2024))

One of the most exciting new finds from the study is a massive “filament,” or bridge, of hot gas that connects two clusters of galaxies spanning more than 42 million light-years (more than 400 times the length of the Milky Way). The filament is supposed to be a component of the cosmic web, a massive superhighway of gas that feeds all galaxies in the universe and displays the empty spaces where the elusive dark matter is assumed to reside. (The study has not been peer-reviewed.)

In addition to publishing the most recent batch of data, project researchers have submitted over 50 publications to scholarly journals, covering only a portion of eROSITA’s new results. According to the astronomers, this new ream of astronomical reading material adds to the more than 200 publications published on previous eROSITA findings.

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