South African telescope discovers galactic laser 5 billion light years away

by Deon Osborne, Associate Editor
South African telescope discovers galactic laser 5 billion light years away megamaser
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A first-of-its-kind South African telescope has detected a powerful, radio-wave laser called a “megamaser” from a whopping 5 billion light years away. 

Completed in 2018, South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope boasts an array of 64 dishes, each 13.5 meters in diameter, making it the most sensitive telescope in the world. 

The record-breaking find came on just the first night of observations that plan to span 3,000 hours of surveillance. It remains the most distant megamaser of its kind ever detected, according to a report published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters on April 6.

Working for the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), Dr Marcin Glowacki leads the international team that made the discovery. He said megamasers can be created 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,” Dr. Glowacki stated in a press release published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

“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,” Dr. Glowacki added.

Scientists named the megamaser Nkalakatha [pronounced ng-kuh-la-kuh-tah]. It’s an isiZulu word meaning “big boss.” 

South African telescope discovers galactic laser 5 billion light years away megamaser

MeerKAT is made up of 64 satellite dishes.
(South African Radio Astronomy Observatory)

South Africa’s powerful telescope: MeerKAT

Notably, the powerful South African telescope, MeerKAT, works by capturing the kind of light on the radio end of the electromagnetic spectrum, astronomers said. It’s situated 90 km outside the small Northern Cape town of Carnarvon, according to the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory.  

Originally, it was known simply as the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT) with 20 receptors. Yet after the South African government increased the budget, receptors were increased to 64. The more powerful device then became known as MeerKAT, partly named for a small mammal that resides in the Karoo region of South Africa. 

The MeerKAT has already made unprecedented discoveries, but its future looks to be as bright as a megamaser. The South African world-renowned device will soon become part of an international effort to reach deeper in the universe’s past than ever before. 

The MeerKAT will eventually be integrated into the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope. The goal is to create a device with one million square meters of collecting area.

“With this new instrument, South Africa stands poised to be at the forefront of astronomy and data science,” SKA Organisation director-general Phil Diamond said at the telescope’s 2018 launch.

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