Galaxy turns ray gun on neighbour

A real life Death Star has been discovered pulverising other suns and planets with its “ray gun” in the depths of space. In scenes reminiscent of the Star Wars movies, the attacker is firing a powerful jet at a nearby galaxy.

Astronomers say it is cosmic violence on a scale rarely seen.

UK astronomers helped confirm the discovery, made using three Nasa telescopes working together in space – Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer. Networks of radio telescopes in the UK and USA were brought in to provide extra evidence.

The “Death Star” is really a supermassive black hole in a pair of galaxies orbiting each other, 20,000 light-years apart, in a system called 3C321.

Both galaxies have giant black holes at their centres, but the larger has a powerful jet aimed straight at its smaller neighbour. The jet is delivering lethal levels of X-rays and gamma rays.

Experts say the jet could have a destructive effect on planets in its path but could also trigger the birth of a burst of new stars in its wake.

Chief discoverer Dan Evans, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said: “This is the first time we’ve seen a jet punch into another galaxy like we’re seeing here. This jet could be causing all sorts of problems for the smaller galaxy it is pummelling.”

Co-investigator Martin Hardcastle, of the University of Hertfordshire, said: “We see jets all over the universe, but we’re still struggling to understand some of their basic properties.

“This system of 3C321 gives us a chance to learn how they’re affected when they slam into something like a galaxy and what they do after that.”

Picture: This is a composite image built up from the different observatories. The blue jet eminates from the bigger galaxy that is the blob at lower left.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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