(ORDO NEWS) — A powerful laser beam of radio waves was detected emanating from deep space.
This is a type of massless cosmic object called a megamaser, and its light has traveled an incredible 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 Ncalakatha, an isizulu word meaning “big boss”.
The discovery was published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and is available on the arXiv preprint server.
A maser is the microwave equivalent of a laser (light amplification by stimulated emission). Instead of emitting visible light, the maser emits microwave and radio waves that are stimulated and amplified.
For an astrophysical maser, the processes that amplify light are cosmic; planets, comets, clouds and stars can produce masers.
As you may have guessed by now, a megamaser is a maser with some serious power. For example, active supermassive black holes can create megamasers.
When data came in from the first night of the study, planned for 3,000 hours, the scientists found the signature of a very specific type of megamaser, bright in wavelength, enhanced by stimulated hydroxyl molecules, consisting of one hydrogen atom and one oxygen atom.
Hydroxyl megamasers have a known formation mechanism. They are emitted by galaxies that are in the process of, or have recently experienced, a collision with another galaxy, resulting in star formation.
The gravitational interactions of such a massive collision compress the star-forming gas, causing it to collapse into young stars at tremendous speed.
The source of the megamaser discovered by scientists is precisely the galaxy WISEA J033046.26−275518.3, now known as Ncalakata.
The MeerKAT review was not designed to search for megamasers. It’s called “Looking at the Distant Universe with a Meerkat Array” (LADUMA), and it looks for the 21 cm wavelength emitted by neutral hydrogen in the early Universe stretched (redshifted) by the expansion of the Universe.
However, the wavelength of the hydroxyl megamaser is 18 centimeters; when they are redshifted, they are even longer, and this redshifted signal was within the range detectable by the telescope array.
Since the region of the sky was observed at other wavelengths, it was quite easy to track the signal to the parent galaxy. Ncalakatha is bright in the infrared and has a long tail on one side that glows brightly in the radio, likely as a result of the gravitational interaction between the two now merged galaxies.
The team has already scheduled follow-up observations of the enchanting object and expects to find many more megamasers as the study continues.
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