An international team of astronomers using the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa has discovered a galactic radio-wave laser known as a megamaser. This is not only the most distant but also the largest source of such signals reaching the Earth. It is located at a distance of about five billion light-years and was named Nkalakatha, which translates as “Big Boss” in the Zulu language.
What is a ‘Megamaser’?
Some astronomical objects – usually molecular clouds – can be “pumped” with energy and emit it in the form of stimulated radiation. Some types of lasers work in a similar way, and since these cosmic sources emit radiation in the infrared range, they are called masers.
A megamaser is the largest type of maser, that is, a powerful natural source of stimulated emission. The luminosity of some of them is orders of magnitude higher than the luminosity of the Sun – for example, megamasers are thousands of times brighter.
The natural pumping mechanism is based on OH hydroxyl molecules, and the inverse population of energy levels in the medium occurs when photons are absorbed and reemitted by interstellar gas and dust.
Two galaxies collided in deep space and scientists caught their laser signal
Scientists discovered the megamaser while using the MeerKAT telescope during the LADUMA survey, which targets molecular clouds of the early and distant universe.
The Nkalakatha emission turned out to be quite characteristic, indicating that the source is an interstellar hydroxyl (OH) cloud located in a galaxy that is undergoing a merger with another galaxy.
“When galaxies merge, the gas they contain becomes extremely dense and can emit concentrated beams of radiation,” says Marcin Glowacki, one of the authors of the study.
The megamaser is located in the galaxy WISEA J033046.26−275518.3, which is brightly visible in the infrared range and demonstrates a long “tail” of radio emission, apparently associated with matter that is pulled from the galaxy by its approaching neighbor.
According to scientists, this is the most distant hydroxyl megamaser known to date. Scientists are certain that it formed as a result of the collision between two galaxies.
This is the first such discovery for MeerKAT, but scientists are confident that it will soon detect other megamasers in deep space.
Earlier this year, a scientific team created the most complete and user-friendly online database of cosmic masers.
Using this database, researchers around the world will be able to identify and study the most promising objects in our galaxy, as well as discover new patterns in the development of star formation regions.
As source material, the developers used data from more than 140 articles, from which they extracted not only numerical information but also images (spectra) and textual descriptions of maser sources.
In addition, the database contains data on infrared, millimeter and other wavelength ranges. This is especially important for a comprehensive study of maser sources and the even more groundbreaking megamasers.
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• Glowacki, M., Collier, J. D., Kazemi-Moridani, A., Frank, B., Roberts, H., Darling, J., Klöckner, H.-R., Adams, N., Baker, A. J., Bershady, M., Blecher, T., Blyth, S.-L., Bowler, R., Catinella, B., Chemin, L., Crawford, S. M., Cress, C., Davé, R., Deane, R., … Zwaan, M. A. (2022, April 6). Laduma: Discovery of a luminous oh megamaser at $z > 0.5$. arXiv.org.
• Phys.org. (2022, April 7). Astronomers Detect Galactic Space Laser.
• SciTechDaily. (2022, April 10). Astronomers detect powerful “Galactic space laser” Five Billion Light years from Earth.
• Tangermann, V. (2022, April 8). Astronomers detect galactic laser coming from Deep Space. Futurism.