Galaxy Blasts Neighbor with Deadly Jet
A powerful jet from a supermassive black hole is blasting a nearby galaxy in the system known as 3C321, according to new results from NASA. This galactic violence, never seen before, could have a profound effect on any planets in the path of the jet and trigger a burst of star formation in the wake of its destruction.
Credit: X-ray: NASA/ CXC/ CfA/ D.Evans et al.; Optical/UV: NASA/ STScI; Radio: NSF/ VLA/ CfA/ D.Evans et al., STFC/ JBO/ MERLIN

This story was updated at 1:42 p.m. ET.

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 the 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. Both galaxies are situated 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.

"The photons can have a really dramatic, profound effect on a planetary atmosphere," he said. "It's likely the ozone layer on an Earth-like planet would be destroyed within months."

Without an ozone layer to protect a planet from deadly space radiation, Tyson said creatures on a planet's surface would perish quickly.

"You would basically render extinct all surface forms of life," Tyson said. "But it may be that subterranean life is ? immune to this kind of violence in the universe."

Recent attack

The offending galaxy probably began assaulting 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 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."

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.