You know the feeling when you’re driving down a street looking for a place you’ve never been to, and you just can’t find it? You know you’re in the right place, and it should be right here, but as you drive up and down the block like a maniac, it’s nowhere to be found? Suddenly you look up, and it turns out it’s been there all along. There was just a dump truck blocking the view the whole time.
Astronomers just experienced something similar to that. In a study published today in Astronomical Journal, an international team of researchers report their discovery of hundreds of galaxies that were just a mere 250 million light years from Earth (a small distance in terms of the universe).
That’s a pretty big deal: The average galaxy is made of about 100 billion stars — and when they’re this close, they shouldn’t be that hard to find. It’s like finding a gold quarry in your backyard. What took so long to find all these galaxies?
Turns out it was our own Milky Way that was blocking the view:
“The Milky Way is very beautiful of course and it’s very interesting to study our own galaxy but it completely blocks out the view of the more distant galaxies behind it,” lead author Lister Staveley-Smith from the University of Western Australia said in a statement about the report.
Using the CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia, the research team found 883 galaxies hidden behind our own galaxy — a third of which no astronomer had ever seen before.
The key to this mystery is something called the Great Attractor: a gravitational anomaly that has stumped astrophysicists since the 1970s. About 150 to 250 million light years away from Earth and within the vicinity of the Hydra-Centaurus Supercluster, the Great Attractor contains an insane concentration of mass that’s tens of thousands of times bigger than the entire Milky Way itself.
The “attractor” descriptor comes from the fact that this super-powerful mass is pulling the Milky Way — and hundreds of thousands of other galaxies — toward it.
Yes, that’s correct: We’re being sucked in by some unknown force at the speed of more than 1.2 million miles an hour, hurtling towards a literally Earth-shattering fate some billions of years in the making. (Don’t worry — you and everyone you know will be long dead before that happens.)
The research team’s original goal was to study the Great Attractor and try to find out what exactly it is. In finding these new galaxies and observing the various clusters and superclusters they’ve collected into, they hope to gain some insight into what the Great Attractor is, how it formed, and how it is structured. That will take more observation and analysis, but newer technologies in the next few years should make that a speedier and more efficient process than ever before.
Even in space, you never know what’s just around the corner.