Researchers discover a mega “galactic laser” at the end of the cosmos

Researchers discover a mega “galactic laser” at the end of the cosmos

This is the most distant maser (yes, with an m!) ever detected, several billion billion kilometers from Earth.

Researchers from the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research have just released a statement reporting a stunning discovery; in a press release, they announced that they had got their hands on a powerful mega-maser, the source of which is located more than 58,000 billion billion kilometers from our Earth.

A score that makes “the most distant such megamaser to have been observed by any telescope”, says Marcin Glowacki, an astronomer from the University of Western Cape in South Africa. And that’s not a typo; it is indeed a massagewith a “m” as in “microwave”.

© UC Davis ChemWiki, CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0

The microwave cousin of the laser

Very vulgarly, like its distant cousin the laser, it is a “purified” version of an electromagnetic wave. The latter are essentially streams of massless particles, photons; they can take different forms depending on their properties. The most important of these properties is the wavelength; to summarize very vulgarly, this term designates the distance which separates two “waves” of the wave.

The difference between a laser and a maser directly concerns this wavelength. In the case of a laser, the wavelength belongs to what is called the “visible” range, which is approximately between 400 (violet) and 700 nanometers (red). The photos then reach us in the form of visible light; it is traditionally associated with red or green light, but it is theoretically possible to make it in any color.

But it is also possible to process an electromagnetic wave outside the visible range. For example, it works just as well on the infrared or radio wave side. It also works with those whose wavelength is between 1 millimeter and 1 meter; we are then talking about microwaves, the same ones that you may have used to heat up a small dish this afternoon. In these cases, we no longer speak of a laser, but of a maser.

The merging Mouse Galaxies. © NASA, H. Ford, G. Illingworth, M. Clampin, G. Hartig, ACS Science Team, ESA

A suggestive sign of a violent collision between galaxies

But even though it’s microwaves, it takes more than just a household appliance to generate a maser. Because the one that was spotted by the researchers, in particular, was extremely intense; this has led researchers to speak of “megamaser”.

To generate a wave of this intensity, it necessarily requires a cataclysmic energy source. But as much to say it right away, it is not a distress signal sent by extraterrestrials. According to the researchers, it was the extremely brutal collision of two galaxies that generated this maser.

When galaxies collide, the gases they contain become extremely dense”, explains Marcin Glowacki. “This can lead to the emission of concentrated light rays”, he specifies. And this is precisely what astronomers have intercepted using the MeerKAT telescope.

When a molecule absorbs a photon at a wavelength of 18cm, it emits two photons back; this emission can become very intense during the merger of galaxies, © IDIA/LADUMA using data from NASA/StSci/SKAO/MolView

However, the signals produced during such violent events, such as this megamaser, are particularly interesting. They indeed represent a small window which makes it possible to extract scraps of information on these cataclysmic events. And since the latter play a decisive role in the architecture of our universe, each signal that can be drawn from them constitutes an additional piece of a gigantic scientific puzzle.

The researchers therefore hope that the MeerKAT telescope will soon offer them new opportunities of this kind. And there is reason to be optimistic: this observation was carried out during the very first night of a program which must accumulate more than 3000 hours of observation in total. “It’s impressive to have been able to find a record-breaking megamaser after just one night of observation,” enthuse the researchers. “It shows how excellent this telescope is,” they conclude.

The text of the study is available here.

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