One of the burning questions of modern astrophysics is all of the Universe much like our solar system and our galaxy. It turns out that the answer is yes, the composition of the Universe is basically the same everywhere, at least according to new research from academics at Stanford University and the Japanese Aeronautics Exploration Agency (JAXA).
The results of the ground-breaking study were recently published in the Astrophysical Journal.
Statements from researchers
“What we found was that the ratios between the abundances of iron, silicon, sulphur, and magnesium, are constant throughout the entire volume of the Virgo Cluster, and indeed roughly consistent with the composition of our own Sun and most of the stars in our Galaxy”, co-author Dr. Norbert Werner from Stanford University notes.
“I’ve found this idea fascinating ever since the first year of my PhD: X-raying the chemical content of our Universe”, commented primary author Aurora Simionescu. “But back then, almost 10 years ago, it was very hard to obtain reliable measurements of the metal abundances except for the very densest, brightest parts of the intergalactic medium, due to a lack of X-ray photons and high background noise. So we could only really probe the chemical composition of roughly the central one-thousandths of the typical volume of any given galaxy cluster.”
Co-author Steven Allen, Professor of Physics at Stanford University, points out that “the Suzaku satellite has opened a brand new window on the Universe and shown us that wherever you look, over vast scales, the mix of chemical elements is essentially the same. It’s a beautifully simple result, and another step in understanding how the Universe around us came to be.”
More on new study on the composition of the universe
JAXA’s new Suzaku X-ray satellite collected data over many weeks for this research. The first observations targeted the brightest system, the Perseus Cluster, and permitted extremely detailed measurements of the iron abundance on large scales. That said, additional data regarding chemical elements mainly produced by core collapse supernovae was still needed.
For this purpose, observations of a galaxy cluster with lower temperatures was needed so the emission from lighter elements would be comparatively stronger than in the Perseus Cluster. Suzaku therefore spent close to two weeks examining the Virgo Cluster, the closest and second brightest cluster in the X-ray sky, and which has a lower temperature. Simionescu and her colleagues at JAXA and Stanford University used this new data to detect not only iron, but also magnesium, silicon and sulfur for the first time. Moreover, the traces of these elements could be detected all the way to the edge of the galaxy cluster.
The researchers note that galaxy clusters cover such a large volume of space that they are believed to be representative for the rest of the Universe. The new data means that the chemical elements in the universe are apparently quite well mixed, with a chemical composition that remains constant from scale of a solar system to a cluster of galaxies. That said, the astrophysicists admit that there could be a few places in the Universe with different chemical make-up, but on average, the composition of the Universe is very similar to our solar system. This is a crucially important discovery, as it means the same elements that are necessary for life are apparently found almost everywhere in the Universe.