According to standard cosmological models, the motion of galaxy clusters with respect to the cosmic microwave background should be randomly distributed in all directions. However, analyzing the three-year WMAP data using the kinematic Sunyaev-Zel'dovich effect, the authors of the study found evidence of a "surprisingly coherent" 600–1000 km/s flow of clusters toward a 20-degree patch of sky between the constellations of Centaurus and Vela.
The authors (Alexander Kashlinsky, F. Atrio-Barandela, D. Kocevski, and H. Ebeling) suggest that the motion may be a remnant of the influence of no-longer-visible regions of the universe prior to inflation. Telescopes cannot see events earlier than about 380,000 years after the big bang, when the universe became transparent (the Cosmic Microwave Background); this corresponds to the particle horizon at a distance of about 46 billion (4.6×10^10) light years. Since the matter causing the net motion in this proposal is outside this range, it would in a certain sense be outside our visible universe; however, it would still be in our past light cone.
The results appeared in the October 20, 2008, issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters. Since then, the authors have extended their analysis to additional clusters and the recently released WMAP five-year data.
The dark flow was determined to be flowing in the direction of the Centaurus and Hydra constellations. This corresponds with the direction of the Great Attractor, which was a previous gravitational mystery originally discovered in 1973. However, the source of the Great Attractor's attraction was thought to originate from a massive cluster of galaxies called the Norma cluster, situated merely between 150-250 million light-years away. This may reveal that the source of that attraction might lie even further away, and which the Great Attractor itself is heading towards.
In a study from March 2010, Kashlinsky extended his work from 2008, by using the 5-year WMAP results rather than the 3-year results, and doubling the number of galaxy clusters observed from 700. The team also sorted the cluster catalog into four "slices" representing different distance ranges. They then examined the preferred flow direction for the clusters within each slice. While the size and exact position of this direction display some variation, the overall trends among the slices exhibit remarkable agreement. "We detect motion along this axis, but right now our data cannot state as strongly as we'd like whether the clusters are coming or going," Kashlinsky said.
The team has so far catalogued the effect as far out as 2.5 billion light-years, and hope to expand their catalog out further still to twice the current distance.
Panoramic view of galaxies beyond Milky Way, with Norma cluster & Great Attractor shown by a long blue arrow at the bottom-right in image near the disk of the Milky Way.
NASA's Goddard Space Center confirmed this could be the effects of a sibling universe or a region of space-time fundamentally different from the observable universe. Data on more than 1,000 galaxy clusters have been measured, including some as distant as 3 billion light-years. Alexander Kashlinsky claims these measurements show the universe's steady flow is clearly not a statistical fluke. Said Kashlinsky: "At this point we don't have enough information to see what it is, or to constrain it. We can only say with certainty that somewhere very far away the world is very different than what we see locally. Whether it's 'another universe' or a different fabric of space-time we don't know."