June 16, 2019

Found in Space> University scientist work far into the night

ORONO — When David Batuski finds something, it’s big.

The University of Maine astronomy and physics professor was once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for discovering the largest structure in the universe — a supercluster of galaxies dubbed Perseus-Pegasus.

Although subsequent supercluster discoveries have been made, Batuski and two graduate students recently located a new string of clusters of galaxies that stretches more than 100 billion light-years in length.

The new supercluster, which is located in the southern constellation Aquarius, is more than a billion light-years from Earth.

Batuski likens the Aquarius supercluster to a string of beads with a knot in the middle. The string contains 22 clusters of galaxies and is marked by a tight knot of six clusters. Although larger superclusters have been found, such a dense knot of matter is highly unusual.

The supercluster is a telltale “fingerprint” from the early days of our universe, Batuski said.

He explained that gravity is responsible for bringing swirling galaxies together into clusters. But superclusters are too big to have been formed by the forces of gravity.

“These are the fingerprints of the big bang,” Batuski said of superclusters. “They are no doubt telling us something very fundamental about our universe.”

Further study of how these large structures came into existence could tell researchers something about how matter on Earth is put together and shed light on how the fabric of space is stretched and contoured throughout the universe.

“If we learn how space is put together, we will gain insight into how atoms and other matter on Earth are put together,” Batuski said.

The work of Batuski, Kurt Slinglend, a former UM graduate student who has since completed his doctorate, and Chris Miller, who recently came to Orono from Penn State to work on his doctorate, builds upon the findings of NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer satellite which discovered “wrinkles” in space in 1991. The wrinkles, Batuski said, represent hot and cold spots in the universe. The tops of the wrinkles are hot spots with cool valleys in between. The hot spots indicate where large cosmic structures used to be billions of years ago.

By focusing their attention on the peaks, or hot spots, the UM scientists painstakingly mapped out a small portion of sky in the Aquarius constellation. The plots indicated that there were clusters of objects at specific distances from the Earth.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, the researchers set out for South America to observe in the sky what they had seen on paper and in computer programs. The observations were made in 1994 and 1995 at the European Southern Observatory in Chile, which has one of the largest telescopes in the world. While astronomers do look through the telescope, most of the work is done by a computer which records and analyzes images of the night sky. What the computer found lent credence to the idea that the clumps of hot spots were in fact a new supercluster.

Not glamorous, the researchers say, but that’s how astronomic discoveries are made.

While most of the research involves analyzing plots and printouts, Miller said it’s neat to be able to point to a faint light in the sky and tell his friends that that’s a supercluster he helped discover.

Batuski, who is modest and soft-spoken, said the recent discovery has thrust him into prominence among his astronomer peers. At a recent conference, he began to introduce himself to an astronomer from Europe whom he’d never met before. The man stopped him, saying he knew who he was because he’d discovered a new supercluster.

“It’s an example of the pretty highly regarded research that goes on at the University of Maine,” Batuski said.

It is ironic that such highly regarded astronomy research is taking place in Maine — a state not known for its observatories, Batuski pointed out during a recent string of overcast days.

He said advances in technology, particularly the advent of the Internet, now make it easy for astronomers to work almost anywhere in the world.

“These days it’s not so bad being in the North Woods,” he said with a smile.

Batuski, who came to the University of Maine from New Mexico in 1988, said he was looking for a place where he would be able to teach in addition to doing his research. But more importantly, he was looking for a safe place to raise his two young daughters.

“This is the sort of job I wanted, and Maine is the sort of place I wanted to live,” he said.

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