Seeing things in the sky is what humanity has done for many thousands of years. Animals, deities, and heroes are immortalized in the heavens. And while our instruments let us see further out, we can still spot familiar shapes. The latest image in a long run is the iconic Enterprise from Star Trek spotted by a team of astronomers in the radio emission of Abell 1033.
Abell 1033 is a galaxy cluster located roughly 1.6 billion light-years from Earth. It is home to about 350 galaxies, one of which has a supermassive black hole shooting jets of high-energy particles into intergalactic space. These jets can heat up the gas within a cluster to millions of degrees and are the reason why the object looks like it has a big purple halo. That’s the X-ray emission superimposed on the optical view of the cluster.
But there are other less hot components in the space between galaxies, and to study them researchers used radio waves. That’s how they saw the complex emission that resembles the USS Enterprise D, the one in Star Trek: The Next Generation. But it’s not just a pretty photo. The emission told astronomers something about the cluster’s nature. Abell 1033 is actually two clusters in the process of colliding.
The team noticed that one part of the emission (the one in the “saucer” of the Enterprise) was strongest, suggesting that the merger provided this part with a boost in energy. The team suspects that as the electrons from the jets encountered intergalactic gas, they were given an unexpected boost from shocks and turbulence produced by the merging clusters.
Although the jets can stretch for millions of light-years and significantly alter the environment around a galaxy, their radio emission is usually fairly short (about 500,000 light-years). The large size of the ones seen in this cluster is a consequence of the merging event. A paper describing the observations was published last month in the journal Science Advances.
Seeing familiar objects in unfamiliar surroundings is a psychological phenomenon known as pareidolia. The same phenomenon is responsible for people seeing things in clouds, in the rocks of Mars, and even on toasted bread.