Space & Innovation

Hubble Finds Galaxy-Sized Microwave 'Mega-Laser'

This galaxy plays host to a powerful "megamaser" that sounds like it belongs in the next "Star Wars" movie.

In the classic movie "Star Wars: A New Hope", the Luke Skywalker-led Rebel Alliance destroyed the Empire's super-scary super-weapon, the Death Star. Underestimating the power of The Force, Darth Vader oversaw the construction of a second Death Star that was, again, snuffed-out with the help of a tribe of furry bears on the forest moon of Endor in "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi." Ever a glutton for punishment, 30 years later in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens", the Dark Side's new fascist social club the First Order decided it would be a great plan to build the Starkiller Base - basically a bigger, badder Death Star that eats stars for breakfast. That, too, exploded after some rushed planning by those meddling Rebels.

So, should this up-sizing logic continue, by "Star Wars Episode X," can we can expect the Dark Side to build a galaxy-sized superweapon that could vaporize any galactic neighbor with the flick of a switch?

This might sound far fetched, and probably a fairly horrible premise for a "Star Wars" story line, but it seems Mother Nature may be a little more forward-thinking than Emperor Palpatine and the Hubble Space Telescope has already spotted a fully operational galaxy-sized mega-laser.

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Though it might not look like much, the galaxy pictured here hosts a "megamaser." Megamasers, besides sounding awesome, are basically "astronomical lasers" that produce intense emissions of microwaves that originate from the stimulated emission of microwaves from the interstellar clouds contained within the cores of galaxies. Their smaller cousins, stellar masers, can be found throughout our galaxy and are often produced in star-forming nebulae. For example, interstellar water molecules are known to produce specific frequencies that appear very bright in radio observations of the cosmos.

Megamasers, however, are in a league of they own, generating around a 100 million times more energy than regular Milky Way masers.

This observation of IRAS 16399-0937, a galaxy located over 370 million light-years from Earth, was imaged by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS). Though it may look fairly passive and peaceful, it's generating powerful microwave radiation, making it an important astronomical curiosity.

IRAS 16399-0937 is actually known to contain two nuclei, possibly revealing that it was once two galaxies that have merged together. The northern nucleus is known to contain a supermassive black hole 100 million times the mass of our sun. Also, the southern nucleus is a very active "starburst" region, pooping-out baby stars at a speedy rate, whereas the northern nucleus appears to be devoid of star formation. With the help of Hubble's NICMOS, astronomers have been able to resolve each nucleus spiraling in toward one another.

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Industrial use of masers, which is an acronym for "microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation," actually came before the invention of what we know as the laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). However, masers operate over microwave wavelengths (mainly), whereas lasers operate over higher frequencies. In the laboratory, masers work through the stimulated emission of microwaves - i.e. microwaves pass into a material that, in turn, stimulates the emission of more microwave photons. In astrophysical situations, microwaves pass into clouds of gas and the molecules in that gas can be stimulated to pump out more microwaves than went in, generating a powerful output of coherent radiation at specific frequencies.

As to how a megamaser might be used to destroy other celestial bodies, however, is speculation that will likely remain firmly in the realms of science fiction storytelling (and IRAS 16399-0937 probably won't be killed off by a rebellion any time soon).