Astronomers have detected a powerful radio-wave laser, called a ‘megamaser’.
This megamaser was observed by the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa, which is a precursor instrument for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) – an international project to build the world’s largest radio telescope. The SKA project will consist of thousands of antennas spread across the world, with central cores of operation in South Africa and Western Australia.
The record-breaking find is the most distant megamaser of its kind ever detected, at about five billion light years from Earth. According to Dr Marcin Glowacki, the light from the megamaser has travelled 58 thousand billion billion (58 followed by 21 zeros) kilometres to Earth. The megamaser was detected on the first night of a survey involving more than 3000 hours of observations by the MeerKAT telescope.
The record-breaking object was named ‘Nkalakatha’ (pronounced ng-kuh-la-kuh-tah) – an isiZulu word meaning “big boss”.
But how do megamasers come to be? Well, Glowacki said they’re usually created when two galaxies violently collide in the Universe. Yikes.
“When galaxies collide, the gas they contain becomes extremely dense and can trigger concentrated beams of light to shoot out,” he said.
“This is the first hydroxyl megamaser to be observed by MeerKAT and the most distant seen by any telescope to date.
“It’s impressive that, with just a single night of observations, we’ve already found a record-breaking megamaser. It shows just how good the telescope is.”
The team is using MeerKAT to observe narrow regions of the sky extremely deeply and will measure atomic hydrogen in galaxies from the distant past to now. The combination of studying hydroxl masers and hydrogen will help astronomers better understand how the Universe has evolved over time.
“We have follow-up observations of the megamaser planned and hope to make many more discoveries,” Glowacki added.
Glowacki led the astronomers on their find. He’s currently based out of the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), but previously worked at the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy and the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.