Astronomers detect a powerful space laser that is 5 billion light-years away

It is the most distant megamaser of its kind ever detected.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Artist’s impression of a hydroxyl maser.ICRAR

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, has made an impressive discovery from 5 billion light-years away, according to a statement released by the institution on Thursday.

Using the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa, the researchers discovered a powerful radio-wave laser, called a ‘megamaser’,  that is the most distant megamaser of its kind ever detected. Its light has traveled 58 thousand billion billion (58 followed by 21 zeros) kilometers to Earth. 

When galaxies collide...

How did it come to be? Megamasers occur when two galaxies violently collide in the Universe.

“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. 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 researchers named the object ‘Nkalakatha’ [pronounced ng-kuh-la-kuh-tah]—an isiZulu word meaning “big boss” and further emphasized how impressive it was to find the record-breaking object within just one night of observations.

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A single night of observations

“It’s impressive that in a single night of observations with MeerKAT, we already found a redshift record-breaking megamaser. The full 3000+ hour LADUMA survey will be the most sensitive of its kind," Glowacki said in a statement by the University of the Western Cape. LADUMA is the project that Glowacki and his team are currently working on and it stands for Looking at the Distant Universe with the Meerkat Array.

Next, the team sought to explore where the megamaser was coming from. Luckily, the patch of sky explored by the LADUMA team had been observed in X-rays, optical light, and infra-red making it easy to spot the object's host galaxy.

But their work still continues as the celestial object still has many mysteries to unravel. “We have already planned follow-up observations of the megamaser, and as LADUMA progresses we will make many more discoveries,” concluded Glowacki.