Hubble has spotted, imaged and sent across a stunning beautiful megamaser located over 370 million light-years from Earth.
Megamasers are celestial bodies that are intensely bright – around 100 million times brighter than the masers found in galaxies like the Milky Way. A megamaser is a process where some components within a galaxy (like gas clouds) are in the right stimulated physical condition to radiate intense energy (in this case, microwaves). The entire galaxy essentially acts as an astronomical laser that beams out microwave emission rather than visible light (hence the ‘m’ replacing the ‘l’).
This particular megamaser is named IRAS 16399-0937 and while it is immensely energetic, the image captured by Hubble hides away the galaxy’s energetic nature and instead presents it as a serene and beautiful cosmic rosebud. The image has been put together through observations captured across various wavelengths by two of Hubble’s instruments: the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), and the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS).
NICMOS’s superb sensitivity, resolution, and field of view gave astronomers the unique opportunity to observe the structure of IRAS 16399-0937 in detail. This particular megamaser has a double nucleus — the galaxy’s core is thought to be formed of two separate cores in the process of merging. The two components, named IRAS 16399N and IRAS 16399S for the northern and southern parts respectively, sit over 11,000 light-years apart. However, they are both buried deep within the same swirl of cosmic gas and dust and are interacting, giving the galaxy its peculiar structure.
The nuclei are very different. IRAS 16399S appears to be a starburst region, where new stars are forming at an incredible rate. IRAS 16399N, however, is something known as a LINER nucleus (Low Ionization Nuclear Emission Region), which is a region whose emission mostly stems from weakly-ionized or neutral atoms of particular gases. The northern nucleus also hosts a black hole with some 100 million times the mass of the sun!