A Powerful 'Space Laser' Has Been Detected Beaming From Deep Space

A Powerful ‘Space Laser’ Has Been Detected Beaming From Deep Space

A powerful radio-wavelength laser light has been discovered emanating from the farthest distance across deep space ever.

It’s a megamaser, a type of massless cosmic object, and its light has traveled a staggering 5 billion light-years to reach us here on Earth. The astronomers who discovered it with the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa named it Nkalakatha, which means “big boss” in isiZulu.

The discovery was accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and is now available on the preprint service arXiv.

“It’s impressive that, with just a single night of observations, we’ve already found a record-breaking megamaser,”┬ásaid astronomer Marcin Glowacki of Australia’s Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR).

“It shows just how good the telescope is.”

A maser is a microwave equivalent of a laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). A maser, rather than generating visible light, stimulates and amplifies microwave and radio wavelengths. The processes that amplify light in an astrophysical maser are cosmic; planets, comets, clouds, and stars can all make masers.

As you may have guessed it, a megamaser is therefore a maser with some serious oomph. Generally these emissions are produced by an object that is going absolutely ham in some way; for instance, active supermassive black holes can produce megamasers.

When the data from the first night of a 3,000-hour survey arrived, Glowacki and his colleagues discovered the signature of a particularly unique sort of megamaser, brilliant in wavelengths magnified by stimulated hydroxyl molecules, consisting of one hydrogen atom and one oxygen atom.

Hydroxyl megamasers have a  known production mechanism. They are released by galaxies that are in the process of merging with another galaxy and are exploding with star formation as a result. The gravitational interactions of such a huge encounter compress star-forming gas, forcing it to condense rapidly into infant stars.

The source of the megamaser discovered by Glowacki and colleagues is a galaxy designated as WISEA J033046.26275518.3 – now known as Nkalakatha.

“When two galaxies like the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy collide, beams of light shoot out from the collision and can be seen at cosmological distances,” said astrophysicist Jeremy Darling from the University of Colorado.

“The hydroxyl megamasers act like bright lights that say: here is a collision of galaxies that is making new stars and feeding massive black holes.”

The MeerKAT survey was not intended to find megamasers. Seeking at the Distant Universe with the Meerkat Array (LADUMA) is looking for a 21-centimeter wavelength emitted by neutral hydrogen in the early Universe, stretched (redshifted) by the Universe’s expansion.

The wavelengths of a hydroxyl megamaser, on the other hand, are 18 centimeters; when redshifted, they are much longer, and that redshifted signal was detectable by the telescope array.

Because the region of the sky has been widely examined at other wavelengths, tracing the signal to a host galaxy was rather simple. Nkalakatha glows brightly in infrared wavelengths and has a long tail on one side that glows brightly in radio wavelengths, most likely as a result of gravitational interaction between the two now-merged galaxies.

The team has already planned additional studies of the fascinating item, and they anticipate finding many more megamasers as the study proceeds.

“MeerKAT will probably double the known number of these rare phenomena,” Darling said. “Galaxies were thought to merge more often in the past, and the newly discovered hydroxyl megamasers will allow us to test this hypothesis.”

The study has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and is available on arXiv.

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