BOSS: The Largest Known Structure in the Universe

March 14, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

The Veil Nebula
Photo credit: pixabay.com

It is one billion light-years across!

Space is enormous and it is often hard to grasp just how big it is.  Try to picture this: a distant complex of galaxy superclusters — possibly one of the largest structures found so far — is one billion light years across, or 6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles!

Individual galaxies, like our Milky Way, are bound together by gravity into clusters, and these clusters group into what are called superclusters.  Superclusters can sometimes link together into long lines of galaxies called walls.

For example, the Sloan Great Wall, discovered in 2003, is located in a nearby universe, and the Milky Way was recently found to be part of a supercluster system called Laniakea.  However, both these systems are dwarfed compared to this newly discovered Great Wall named BOSS.

SEE ALSO: Monstrous Galaxy Cluster Cannibalizes Itself to Create New Stars

The BOSS Great Wall has ten times the volume of Sloan and is almost 70 percent larger in diameter.  It is made up of four superclusters containing 830 galaxies, and is located about 5 billion light-years away from Earth.  The Laniakea supercluster is less than half the size of BOSS.

While scientists were working for the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), which is an international galaxy mapping project and how the wall got it’s name, they spotted what is being described as the largest structure in the universe — at least in the part of the universe they have mapped so far.

“It was so much bigger than anything else in this volume,” Heidi Lietzen of the Canary Islands Institute of Astrophysics, a lead author on the study, told the New Scientist.

Since BOSS is so enormous, it is easy to understand why some scientists are questioning whether these walls can really be considered one giant object.

“I don’t entirely understand why they are connecting all of these features together to call them a single structure,” said Allison Coil of the University of California in San Diego to New Scientist.  “There are clearly kinks and bends in this structure that don’t exist, for example, in the Sloan Great Wall.”

According to Brent Tully of the University of Hawaii, who discovered the Laniakea cluster, what makes a single structure depends on your definition.  

“A denser region of galaxies is traditional and indeed the new wall contains five times as many galaxies as an average patch of sky,” he told New Scientist.  “But tracking whether the galaxies are moving together — impossible, given how far away they are — might give a different answer.”

However, it is not about the size of the wall the matters, noted Smithsonian magazine.  Superclusters and galactic walls, like BOSS and Sloan, are helping astronomers map the universe.  Given only a small portion of the universe has been mapped, there are likely objects bigger than BOSS just waiting for their time to shine!

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