|Two views of the Laniakea Supercluster. The outer surface shows the region dominated by Laniakea’s gravity. For more information, see caption for Figure 1 below. Credit: SDvision interactive visualization software by DP at CEA/Saclay, France.
University of Hawaii at Manoa astronomer R. Brent Tully, who recently shared the 2014 Gruber Cosmology Prize and the 2014 Victor Ambartsumian International Prize, has led an international team of astronomers in defining the contours of the immense supercluster of galaxies containing our own Milky Way. They have named the supercluster “Laniakea,” meaning “immense heaven” in Hawaiian. The paper explaining this work is the cover story of the September 4 issue of the prestigious journal Nature.
Galaxies are not distributed randomly throughout the universe. Instead, they are found in groups, like our own Local Group, that contain dozens of galaxies, and in massive clusters containing hundreds of galaxies, all interconnected in a web of filaments in which galaxies are strung like pearls. Where these filaments intersect, we find huge structures, called “superclusters.” These structures are interconnected, but they have poorly defined boundaries.
The researchers are proposing a new way to evaluate these large-scale structures by examining their impact on the motions of galaxies. A galaxy between two such structures will be caught in a gravitational tug-of-war in which the balance of the gravitational forces from the surrounding large-scale structures determines the galaxy’s motion. By mapping the velocities of galaxies throughout our local universe, the team was able to define the region of space where each supercluster dominates.
The Milky Way resides in the outskirts of one such supercluster, whose extent has for the first time been carefully mapped using these new techniques. This Laniakea Supercluster is 500 million light-years in diameter and contains the mass of 1017 (a hundred quadrillion) suns
in 100,000 galaxies.
This study clarifies the role of the Great Attractor, a problem that has kept astronomers busy for 30 years. Within the volume of the Laniakea Supercluster, motions are directed inwards, as water streams follow descending paths toward a valley. The Great Attractor region is a large flat bottom gravitational valley with a sphere of attraction that extends across the Laniakea Supercluster.
The name Laniakea was suggested by Nawa‘a Napoleon, an associate professor of Hawaiian Language and chair of the Department of Languages, Linguistics, and Literature at Kapiolani Community College, a part of the University of Hawaii system.
The name honors Polynesian navigators who used knowledge of the heavens to voyage across the immensity of the Pacific Ocean.
The other authors are Hélène Courtois (University Claude Bernard Lyon 1, Lyon, France), Yehuda Hoffman (Racah Institute of Physics, Hebrew University, Jerusalem), and Daniel Pomarède (Institute of Research on Fundamental Laws of the Universe, CEA/Saclay, France).
Here is a short video about Laniakea that gives the viewer a general sense of the structure of our home supercluster and of galaxy motions in the nearby universe is available at http://vimeo.com/104704518. A longer video that complements the Nature paper can be found at http://irfu.cea.fr/laniakea.
Figure 1: Two views of the Laniakea Supercluster. The outer surface shows the region dominated by Laniakea’s gravity. The streamlines shown in black trace the paths along which galaxies flow as they are pulled closer inside the supercluster. Individual galaxies’ colors distinguish major components within the Laniakea Supercluster: the historical Local Supercluster in green, the Great Attractor region in orange, the Pavo-Indus filament in purple, and structures including the Antlia Wall and Fornax-Eridanus cloud in magenta. Credit: SDvision interactive visualization software by DP at CEA/Saclay, France.
Figure 2: A slice of the Laniakea Supercluster in the supergalactic equatorial plane—an imaginary plane containing many of the most massive clusters in this structure. The colors represent density within this slice, with red for high densities and blue for voids—areas with relatively little matter. Individual galaxies are shown as white dots. Velocity flow streams within the region gravitationally dominated by Laniakea are shown in white, while dark blue flow lines are away from the Laniakea local basin of attraction. The orange contour encloses the outer limits of these streams, a diameter of about 160 Mpc. This region contains the mass of about 1017 suns: 100 million billion suns. Credit: SDvision interactive visualization software by DP at CEA/Saclay, France.
Founded in 1967, the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa conducts
research into galaxies, cosmology, stars, planets, and the
sun. Its faculty and staff are also involved in astronomy education,
deep space missions, and in the development and management
of the observatories on Haleakala and Maunakea. The Institute operates facilities on the islands of Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii.