Astronomers reveal the largest cosmic explosion ever seen

A team of astronomers have uncovered the largest cosmic explosion ever witnessed.

The explosion is more than ten times brighter than any known supernova (exploding star) and three times brighter than the brightest tidal disruption event, where a star falls into a supermassive black hole.

The explosion, known as AT2021lwx, has currently lasted over three years, compared to most supernovae which are only visibly bright for a few months. It took place nearly 8 billion light years away, when the universe was around 6 billion years old, and is still being detected by a network of telescopes.

The researchers believe that the explosion is a result of a vast cloud of gas, possibly thousands of times larger than our sun, that has been violently disrupted by a supermassive black hole. Fragments of the cloud would be swallowed up, sending shockwaves through its remnants, as well as into a large dusty ‘doughnut’ surrounding the black hole. Such events are very rare and nothing on this scale has been witnessed before.

Last year, astronomers witnessed the brightest explosion on record - a gamma-ray burst known as GRB 221009A. While this was brighter than AT2021lwx, it lasted for just a fraction of the time, meaning the overall energy released by the AT2021lwx explosion is far greater.

The team are now setting out to collect more data on the explosion - measuring different wavelengths, including X-rays which could reveal the object’s surface and temperature, and what underlying processes are taking place. They will also carry out upgraded computational simulations to test if these match their theory of what caused the explosion.

The research involved astronomers from a number of universities, including Professor Andy Lawrence from the University of Edinburgh, and was led by a team at the University of Southampton.

The findings of the research have been published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.