This record-breaking megamaser is the furthest ever observed at 5 billion light-years from Earth.
The light from this space laser traveled 36 trillion trillion miles (58 trillion trillion kilometers) to reach our planet.
An international team of astronomers, led by Marcin Glowacki, observed this light using the MeerKAT telescope at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory. (MeerKAT is short for Karoo Array Telescope, preceded by the Afrikaans word for “more”.)
Glowacki is a research associate at the Curtin University node of the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research in Australia.
Megamasers are created when two galaxies collide. This is the first hydroxyl megamaser that MeerKAT has observed, Glowacki said.
Hydroxl, a chemical group consisting of one hydrogen atom and one oxygen atom, can be found inside galaxy mergers.
“As galaxies collide, the gas within them becomes extremely dense and can fire off concentrated beams of light,” Glowacki said in a statement.
The research team named the laser Nkalakatha, which means “big boss” in isiZulu, the Bantu language of the Zulu people in South Africa.
Astronomers detected the megamaser on the first night of a survey that spanned more than 3,000 hours of observation using MeerKAT.
“It is impressive that in just one night of observations we have already found a record megamaser,” Glowacki said. “It shows how good the telescope is.”
The research team continues to use MeerKAT to closely observe narrow areas of the sky and search for the same items spied in the megamaser. This could lead to a better understanding of how the universe evolved.
“We have planned follow-up observations of the megamaser and hope to make many more discoveries,” Glowacki said.
The MeerKAT telescope, located in the Karoo region of South Africa, comprises an array of 64 radio dishes and has been operational since July 2018. The powerful telescope is sensitive to weak radio light.
MeerKAT is a precursor to the transcontinental Square Kilometer Array, or SKA, a telescope being built in South Africa and Australia.
The array will include thousands of dishes and up to 1 million low-frequency antennas with the aim of building the largest radio telescope in the world.
Despite the fact that these dishes and antennas will be in different parts of the world, together they will create a telescope that has over one square kilometer (0.39 square miles) of collection area. As a result, astronomers can survey the entire sky much faster than with other telescopes.