It’s easy to become comfortable as the only inhabitable planet in the solar system. Earth is perfectly distanced from its massive sun to reap all the benefits without being burned up. We often forget that in the vastness of space, our Milky Way galaxy is but a tiny speck, and our star merely a pin prick of light. Find that hard to fathom? Well here’s some proof: Scientists today announced that a faraway galaxy known as the Phoenix Cluster may be the biggest and brightest such structure ever discovered, and it’s forming stars at an unprecedented rate.

The hot gas in Phoenix is giving off copious amounts of x-rays and cooling quickly over time, especially near the center of the cluster, causing gas to flow inwards and giving birth to more than 700 stars per year — hundreds of times as fast as our Milky Way forms stars, researchers say. Located about 5.7 billion light years from Earth, researchers estimate that the Phoenix Galaxy Cluster is 2.5 quadrillion times more massive than our own sun (starting to feeling pretty small yet?).

Examining the Phoenix Galaxy Cluster with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the National Science Foundation’s South Pole Telescope and eight other world-class observatories may force astronomers to rethink how these colossal structures and the galaxies that inhabit them evolve.

“I would say it’s in a dead heat for the most massive galaxy cluster,” study lead author Michael McDonald, an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told “The record holder, ‘El Gordo,’ is slightly more massive, but the uncertainty in this estimate is high — it could turn out that with more careful measurements, Phoenix is more massive.”

Observation of other systems revealed that most galaxy clusters formed very few stars during the last few billion years. Astronomers think this decline is caused by a supermassive black hole in the central galaxy that could be pumping energy into the system, preventing cooling gas from causing a burst of star formation. Of course, the Phoenix Galaxy Cluster proves this isn’t always the case: its black hole isn’t producing powerful enough jets, so the center of the Phoenix cluster is buzzing with stars that are forming about 20 times faster than other clusters.

“While galaxies at the center of most clusters may have been dormant for billions of years, the central galaxy in this cluster seems to have come back to life with a new burst of star formation,” said Michael McDonald, a Hubble Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the lead author of a paper appearing in the Aug. 16 issue of the journal Nature. “The mythology of the Phoenix, a bird rising from the dead, is a great way to describe this revived object.”

Photo credit: (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)