Huge structure hidden in deep space challenges our understanding of the universe: ScienceAlert

A massive structure in the distant universe is defying our understanding of how the universe evolved.

In the light that took 6.9 billion years to reach us, astronomers have found a huge, nearly perfect ring of galaxies, about 1.3 billion light years in diameter. It does not match any known structure or formation mechanism.

The Big Ring, as the structure is named, may mean we need to revise the Standard Model of cosmology.

The discovery, led by astronomer Alexia Lopez of the University of Central Lancashire, was presented at the 243rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January, and is reported in a pre-print paper available on arXiv.

big ring body
The Big Ring (blue) and the Giant Arch (red). (University of Central Lancashire)

It is the second massive structure discovered by Lopez and his colleagues. The first, called the Giant Arch, is actually in the same part of the sky, at the same distance. When the discovery of the arch was announced in 2021, it surprised astronomers. The Big Ring only deepens the mystery.

“Either of these two ultra-large structures are not easy to explain in our current understanding of the universe,” Lopez said in January. “And their ultra-large size, distinctive shape and cosmological proximity must surely be telling us something important – but what exactly?”

The most immediate link appears to be something called baryon acoustic oscillation (BAO). These are huge, spherical systems of galaxies found throughout space. They are actually spheres, fossils of acoustic waves that spread through the early universe, and then froze when space expanded so much that acoustic waves could no longer travel.

The Big Ring is not BAO. BAOs all have a fixed size with a diameter of about 1 billion light years. And close inspection of the Big Ring reveals that it is like a corkscrew shape that is aligned in such a way that it looks like a ring.

big ring plot
A plot of galaxies, showing the Big Ring, roughly centered at 0 on the x-axis. (University of Central Lancashire)

Which leaves a very unanswered question: What exactly is it? And what does this mean for the cosmological principle, which states that, in all directions, any part of space should look exactly the same as all other parts of space?

“We expect that when we look at the universe on large scales, matter will be evenly distributed everywhere in space, so above a certain size there should be no noticeable irregularities,” Lopez explained.

“Cosmologists calculate the current theoretical size limit of the structures to be 1.2 billion light-years, yet both of these structures are very large – the Giant Arc is about three times larger and the circumference of the Big Ring is equal to the length of the Giant Arc.”

But size is only one of the problems. Its second meaning for cosmology is the study of the evolution of the universe. The current model is the one that fits best with what we currently see, but there are some features that are challenging to explain within its framework.

There are other models that have been put forward to address these features. Under one such model, Roger Penrose's conformal cyclic cosmology, in which the universe undergoes endless Big Bang expansion cycles, ring structures are expected – although it is worth noting that conformal cyclic cosmology has its own significant problems. .

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Another possibility is that the structures are a type of topological defects in the framework of space-time known as cosmic strings. These are thought to be like the proton-wide wrinkles that emerged as space-time expanded in the early universe, then froze in place. We haven't found much physical evidence of cosmic stars, but the theoretical evidence is quite promising.

At the moment, no one knows for sure what the Big Ring and the Giant Arch represent. They may simply be random arrangements of galaxies orbiting in the sky, although this seems very unlikely.

The best hope would be to find more such systems of galaxies, hidden in plain sight, scattered throughout the universe.

“With current cosmological theories we didn't think structures on this scale were possible,” Lopez said. “We can probably expect only one very large structure in our entire observable universe. Nevertheless, the Big Ring and the Giant Arc are two huge structures and even have cosmological neighbors, which is exceptionally fascinating. “

The research was presented at the 243rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society and is reported in a pre-print paper on

An earlier version of this article was published in January 2024.

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