Astronomers detect a ‘galactic space laser’

A powerful radio wave laser, called a ‘megamaser’, has been observed by the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa.

The record-breaking discovery is the most distant such megamaser ever detected, about five billion light-years from Earth.

The light from the megamaser traveled 58 billion billion (58 followed by 21 zeros) kilometers to Earth.

The discovery was made by an international team of astronomers led by Dr Marcin Glowacki, who previously worked at the Inter-University Institute for Data-Intensive Astronomy and the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.

Dr Glowacki, who is now based at the Curtin University node of the International Center for Research in Radio Astronomy (ICRAR) in Western Australia, said megamasers are usually created when two galaxies collide violently in the Universe.

“When galaxies collide, the gas within them becomes extremely dense and can fire off concentrated beams of light,” he said.

“This is the first such hydroxyl megamaser to be observed by MeerKAT and the farthest observed by any telescope to date.

“It’s impressive that in just one night of observations we’ve already found a record-breaking megamaser. It shows how good the telescope is.”

The record object was named ‘Nkalakatha’ [pronounced ng-kuh-la-kuh-tah] — an isiZulu word meaning “big boss”.

Dr Glowacki said the megamaser was detected on the first night of a survey involving more than 3,000 hours of observations by the MeerKAT telescope.

The team uses MeerKAT to look extremely deeply into narrow regions of the sky and will measure atomic hydrogen in galaxies from the distant past to today. The combination of studying hydroxl and hydrogen masers will help astronomers better understand how the Universe has evolved over time.

“We have planned follow-up observations of the megamaser and hope to make many more discoveries,” Dr Glowacki said.

MeerKAT is a precursor instrument to the Square Kilometer Array, a global initiative to build the world’s largest radio telescopes in Western Australia and South Africa.

Source of the story:

Material provided by International Center for Research in Radio Astronomy. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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