Image: main galaxy and the companion galaxy
NASA/CXC/M. Weiss
This artist's impression of 3C321 shows the main galaxy and the companion galaxy. A jet of particles generated by a supermassive black hole at the center of the main galaxy is striking the companion galaxy. The jet is disrupted and deflected by this impact. The actual composite image of the phenomenon can be seen below.
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updated 12/17/2007 3:30:32 PM ET 2007-12-17T20:30:32

For the first time astronomers have witnessed a supermassive black hole blasting its galactic neighbor with a deadly beam of energy.

The "death star galaxy," as NASA astronomers called it, could obliterate the atmospheres of planets but also trigger the birth of stars in its wake of its destructive beam. Fortunately, the cosmic violence is a safe distance from our own neck of the cosmos.

"We've seen many jets produced by black holes, but this is the first time we've seen one punch into another galaxy like we're seeing here," said Dan Evans, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. "This jet could be causing all sorts of problems for the smaller galaxy it is pummeling."

Evans and his colleagues detail their findings in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Cosmic death
The deadly galaxy — the largest of two in a system known as 3C321 — is aiming the high-energy jet from its center at a smaller galaxy 20,000 light-years away from it, or roughly the distance from Earth to the Milky Way's core. The entire system is located about 1.4 billion light-years away from Earth.

A bright spot in a NASA composite image reveals that the beam is striking the edge of the smaller galaxy, deflecting the spindle of energy into intergalactic space. While not a direct hit, astronomers said the consequences are frightening.

"This is a fascinating result, and we can be glad that we're seeing it from a safe distance," said Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York who did not contribute to the study. "Knowing how lethal the radiation from the jet could be, I wouldn't want to be anywhere near its line of fire."

Jets from supermassive black holes produce tremendous radiation in the form of X-rays, gamma rays and electrons traveling close to the speed of light. Evans said, however, that the X-ray and gamma-ray photons would ultimately do the most damage to planets.

Image: Black hole attack
NASA / CXC / CfA / STScI / NSF / STFC
This composite image shows the jet from a black hole at the center of a galaxy, at left, striking the edge of another galaxy. The image combines X-ray emissions seen by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (purple), optical and ultraviolet data from the Hubble Space Telescope (red and orange) and radio emissions from the Very Large Array and the MERLIN array (blue).

"The photons can have a really dramatic, profound effect on a planetary atmosphere," he said, including vaporizing ozone and other gases. With the protective layers gone, life at the surface would be subject to the jet's full wrath.

Recent attack
The offending galaxy probably began hosing its companion about 1 million years ago, which is relatively recent on a cosmic time scale. Evans said the unusual event makes 3C321 an important object for learning more about the universe.

"We've seen jets do pretty weird things to their environments, but a head-on collision is really rare and generates a [large] amount of information about physics that we can understand and use," Evans said. "For that galaxy to be looking right down ... the barrel of the gun of that jet is incredibly rare, so this makes it a really exciting discovery."

Turns out that the "death ray" may not be all bad news for the victimized galaxy, at least theoretically, as such a massive influx of energy and radiation could help form new stars and solar systems by ripping apart older ones.

To fully view the galactic violence and rebirth, astronomers used NASA's Chandra X-ray observatory, Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, and the Very Large Array and MERLIN radio telescopes on Earth.

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