This massive, record-breaking laser is the most distant ever observed, 5 billion light-years from Earth.
The light emitted by a space laser has traveled 36 billion miles (58 billion km) to reach our planet.
An international team of astronomers led by Marcin Glowacki observed this light using the MeerKAT telescope of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory. (MeerKAT is an acronym for Karoo Array Telescope prefixed with the Afrikaans word for “more”).
Glowacki is a research fellow at Curtin University’s Center for International Radio Astronomy Research in Australia.
Megamasers are formed when two galaxies collide. It’s the first giant hydroxyl that Meerkat noticed, Glowaki said.
Hydroxyl, a chemical group consisting of one hydrogen atom and one oxygen atom, can be found in galactic mergers.
“When galaxies collide, the gas they contain becomes very dense and can release focused beams of light,” Glowicki said in a statement.
The research team named the laser Nkalakatha, which means “great leader” in isiZulu, the Bantu language of the Zulu people of South Africa.
Astronomers discovered MegaMaser on the first night of a survey that spanned more than 3,000 hours of Meerkat observations.
“It’s impressive that we actually found a record-breaking megamaser in just one night of observation,” Glowaki said. “It just shows how good the telescope is.”
The research team continues to use MeerKAT to closely monitor narrow areas of the sky, looking for the same objects that are spied on in Megamasers. This could give more insights into the evolution of the universe.
“We have planned to continue the observations of megamasers and hope to make more discoveries,” Glowaki said.
The MeerKAT telescope in the Karoo region of South Africa has an array of 64 radio dishes and has been in operation since July 2018. The strong telescope is sensitive to weak radio light.
Meerkat is a precursor to the Transcontinental Square Kilometer Array, or SKA, a telescope under construction in both South Africa and Australia.
The array will include thousands of dishes and up to one million low-frequency antennas to build the world’s largest radio telescope.
Despite the fact that these dishes and antennas will be located in different parts of the world, together they will form a telescope with an area of more than one square kilometer (0.39 square miles). This allows astronomers to survey the entire sky much faster than other telescopes.
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