Astronomers detect record-breaking galactic laser 5bn light years away

12 Apr 2022

A megamaser 370m light years from Earth, detected by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image: ESA/Hubble and NASA/Judy Schmidt (Geckzilla)

The megamaser, named Nkalakatha or ‘big boss’, was detected after a single night of observations using the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa.

Astronomers say they have observed a powerful radio-wave laser in deep space, which is the most distant of its kind ever detected.

The observation was made using the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa. The team behind the discovery said the laser – called a megamaser – is roughly 5bn light years from Earth.

The lead author of the research is Dr Marcin Glowacki, who is based at the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Western Australia. He explained that megamasers are usually created when two galaxies violently collide.

“When galaxies collide, the gas they contain becomes extremely dense and can trigger concentrated beams of light to shoot out,” Glowacki said. “This is the first hydroxyl megamaser of its kind to be observed by MeerKAT and the most distant seen by any telescope to date.”

The research team has been using this telescope to measure atomic hydrogen in galaxies from the distant past to present day. It is hoped that by studying hydroxyl masers and hydrogen, astronomers can better understand how the universe has evolved over time.

Artistic impression of a hydroxyl maser.

Artist’s impression of a hydroxyl maser. Image: Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy/Laduma using data from NASA/StSci/SKAO/MolView

The megamaser discovery was made by an international team of astronomers and was detected on the first night of a survey involving more than 3,000 hours of observations by the MeerKAT telescope.

“It’s impressive that, with just a single night of observations, we’ve already found a record-breaking megamaser,” Glowacki said. “It shows just how good the telescope is.”

Glowacki said the team has planned more observations of the megamaser, which they have named Nkalakatha – a Zulu word that means ‘big boss’. The team also hopes to find more discoveries from the data collected by the powerful telescope.

“MeerKAT will probably double the known number of these rare phenomena,” said Prof Jeremy Darling of the University of Colorado, a co-author of the study. “Galaxies were thought to merge more often in the past, and the newly discovered OH [hydroxyl] megamasers will allow us to test this hypothesis.”

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

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic