It’s nice for a change to have an excuse to write something about science rather than science funding, as a press release appeared today concerning the discovery of a new supercluster by Planck in collaboration with the X-ray observatory XMM-Newton.
The physics behind this new discovery concerns what happens to low-energy photons from the cosmic microwave background (CMB) when they are scattered by extremely hot plasma. Basically, incoming microwave photons collide with highly energetic electrons with the result that they gain energy and so are shifted to shorter wavelengths. The generic name given to this process is inverse Compton scattering, and it can happen in a variety of physical contexts. In cosmology, however, there is a particularly important situation where this process has observable consequences, when CMB photons travel through the extremely hot (but extremely tenuous) ionized gas in a cluster of galaxies. In this setting the process is called the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect.
The observational consequence is slightly paradoxical because what happens is that the microwave background can appears to have a lower temperature (at least for a certain range of wavelengths) in the direction of a galaxy cluster (in which the plasma can have a temperature of 10 million degrees or more). This is because fewer photons reach the observer in the microwave part of the spectrum that would if the cluster did not intervene; the missing ones have been kicked up to higher energies and are therefore not seen at their original wavelength, ergo the CMB looks a little cooler along the line of sight to a cluster than in other directions. To put it another way, what has actually happened is that the hot electrons have distorted the spectrum of the photons passing through it.
Here’s an example of the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect in action as seen by Planck in seven frequency bands:
At low frequencies (in the Rayleigh-Jeans part of the spectrum) the region where the cluster is looks cooler than average, although at high frequencies the effect is reversed.
The magnitude of the temperature distortion produced by a cluster depends on the density of electrons in the plasma pervading the cluster n, the temperature of the plasma T, and the overall size of the cluster; in fact, it’s propotional to n×T integrated along the line of sight through the cluster.
Why this new result is so interesting is that it combines very sensitive measurements of the microwave background temperature pattern with sensitive measures of the X-ray emission over the same region of the sky. Plasma hot enough to produce a Sunyaev-Zel’dovich distortion of the CMB spectrum will also generate X-rays through a process known as thermal bremsstrahlung. The power of the X-ray emission depends on the square of the electron density n2 multiplied by the Temperature T.
Since the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich and X-ray measurements depend on different mathematical combinations of the physical properties involved the amalgamation of these two techniques allows astronomers to probe the internal details of the cluster quite precisely.
The example shown here in the top two panels is of a familiar cluster – the Coma Cluster as mapped by Planck (in microwaves) and, by an older X-ray satellite called ROSAT, in X-rays. The two distributions have very similar morphology, strongly suggesting that they have a common origin in the cluster plasma.
The bottom panels show comparisons with the distribution of galaxies as seen in the optical part of the spectrum. You can see that the hot gas I’ve been talking about extends throughout the space between the galaxies. In fact, there is at least as much matter in the hot plasma as there is in the individual galaxies in objects like this, but it’s too hot to be seen in optical light. This could reasonably be called dark matter when it comes to its lack of optical emission, but it’s certainly not dark in X-rays!
The reason why the intracluster plasma is so hot boils down to the strength of the gravitational field in the cluster. Roughly speaking, the hot matter is in virial equilibrium within the gravitational potential generated by the mass distribution within the cluster. Since this is a very deep potential well, electrons move very quickly in response to it. In fact, the galaxies in the cluster are also roughly in virial equilibrium so they too are pulled about by the gravitational field. Galaxies don’t sit around quietly in clusters, they buzz about like bees in a bottle.
Anyway, the new data arising from the combination of Planck and XMM-Newton has revealed not just one cluster, but a cluster of clusters (i.e. a “supercluster”):
It’s early days for Planck, of course, and this is no more than a taster.
The Planck team is currently analysing the data from the first all-sky survey to identify both known and new galaxy clusters for the early Sunyaev-Zel’dovich catalogue, which will be released in January of 2011 as part of the Early Release Compact Source Catalogue. The full Sunyaev-Zel’dovich catalogue may well turn out to be the most enduring legacy of the Planck mission.