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A Cosmic Cluster Eats Its Neighbor

September 25, 2004|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

An international team of scientists described this week one of the most cataclysmic events in the universe, a form of cosmic cannibalism in which one massive galaxy cluster is gobbling its smaller neighbor.

Since galaxy clusters, which can contain thousands of galaxies, are the largest structures in the universe, these mega-mergers are among the most powerful events in the cosmos. Only the Big Bang, which is thought to have brought the universe into being billions of years ago, would have released more energy, according to the scientists.

"The AOL takeover of Time-Warner was peanuts compared to this takeover," said team leader Dr. Patrick Henry of the University of Hawaii.

Although several larger cluster collisions have been observed, the events in Abell 754 are the first time scientists have been able to get an unobstructed view of one cluster consuming the other.

"This is our best view yet of one of the most profound events in the universe," said Dr. Michael Salamon, a NASA scientist in Washington.

Abell 754 is about 800 million light years from Earth. The total number of galaxies involved in the merging clusters is estimated to be about 1,300.

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