Astronomers observe shock waves rippling in the web of the universe for the first time

In this simulation of the cosmic web, shock waves along filaments and around clusters emit radio light (pink) as they ripple through magnetic fields (cyan).

Astronomers “can confirm what so far has only been predicted by simulations — that these shock waves exist,” says astrophysicist Marcus Brüggen of the University of Hamburg in Germany, who was not involved in the new study.

At its grandest scale, our universe looks something like Swiss cheese. Galaxies aren’t distributed evenly through space but rather are clumped together in enormous clusters connected by ropy filaments of dilute gas, galaxies and dark matter and separated by not-quite-empty voids (SN: 10/3/19).

Tugged by gravity, galaxy clusters merge, filaments collide, and gas from the voids falls onto filaments and clusters. In simulations of the cosmic web, all that action consistently sets off enormous shock waves in and along filaments.

Filaments make up most of the cosmic web but are much harder to spot than galaxies (SN: 1/20/14). While scientists have observed shock waves around galaxy clusters before, shocks in filaments “have never been really seen,” says astronomer Reinout van Weeren of Leiden University in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the study. “But they should be basically all around the cosmic web.”


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