Saturday science subject: Death star galaxy

— 11:29 AM on January 5, 2008

Astronomers have uncovered what they say is a really rare phenomenon, reports: a supermassive black hole at the heart of a galaxy blasting a neighboring galaxy with a beam of radiation.

The galaxy that's host to the black hole, dubbed 3C321 or the "death star galaxy," is a safe 1.4 billion light years away from Earth. However, it's a more uncomfortable 20,000 light years away from a smaller galaxy that's positioned right in the way of the beam. According to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, that's close enough for the beam to obliterate an Earth-like planet's ozone layer and wipe out all surface life "within months." The beam could also engender the birth of stars:

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 compressing gases.

"In the end [3C321] may be the source of new life in that distant galaxy," said Martin Hardcastle, an astronomer at the University of Hertfordshire, in the United Kingdom. Hardcastle explained that the jet will continue to pour out of its parent supermassive black hole for about 10 to 100 million longer — plenty of time to squeeze otherwise inert gas together into new star systems.

"Jets can be highly disruptive ... but [create] stellar nurseries," Tyson said. "It's a fascinating sort of duality about how these high-energy phenomena influence the environments in which they're embedded."

A video about the two galaxies can be viewed on this page.

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