"Death Star" Galaxy Found Blasting Smaller Neighbor

December 17, 2007

The supermassive black hole at the center of a distant galaxy is blasting a smaller neighbor with a violent energy jet—earning it the moniker the "Death Star" galaxy—scientists announced today.

The jet has probably fried the atmospheres of any planets in the way, researchers added.

But the never-before-seen display may also one day lead to a new burst of star and planet formation. And it may help unravel the many mysteries about how such jets form, how they work, and how they evolve, experts said.

"The origin, propagation, and energy dissipation of jets are among the most important unsolved problems in modern astrophysics," said lead study author Daniel Evans of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(Related: "Black Holes Belch Universe's Most Energetic Particles" [November 8, 2007].)

Jets may hold also vital clues to figuring out how energy was transported in the formative stages of the universe, he added.

Evans and his team presented the findings today during a NASA teleconference. The work will also appear in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Too Close For Comfort

The Death Star galaxy is one of two galaxies orbiting each other at an unusually close distance. The pair is located in the constellation Serpens about 1.4 billion light-years from Earth.

The galaxies were found using some of science's most powerful technology: NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Large Array, and the U.K.'s MERLIN array of radio telescopes.

The images show a jet reaching out like a tentacle from the larger galaxy—which is about the size of the Milky Way—about a million light-years into space. About 20,000 light-years along the way, the jet encounters the smaller galaxy.

That galaxy—which is also thought to harbor a supermassive black hole—has swung itself into the path of the jet and is rotating clockwise toward it.

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