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Space & Astronomy

Oxygen found half a billion light years away

By T.K. Randall
February 24, 2020 · Comment icon 9 comments

The galaxy in question is dominated by a quasar. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
For the first time ever, scientists have discovered evidence of molecular oxygen in a distant galaxy.
Despite being the third most abundant element in the universe, oxygen has proven surprisingly difficult to locate outside of the confines of our own solar system.

This most recent discovery - which marks only the third ever extrasolar detection and the first ever outside of the Milky Way galaxy - could tell us much about the incidence of oxygen out in space.

It was found a whopping 561 million light years away in the Markarian 231 galaxy which also happens to be home to a quasar - a very luminous galactic nucleus with a supermassive black hole at its center.

"With deep observations toward Markarian 231 using the IRAM 30 meter telescope and NOEMA (NOrthern Extended Millimeter Array), we detected [molecular oxygen] emission in [an] external galaxy for the first time," the researchers wrote.
"The detected O2 emission is located in regions about 10 kpc (32,615 light-years) away from the center of Markarian 231 and may be caused by the interaction between the active galactic nucleus-driven molecular outflow and the outer disc molecular clouds."

Not only is this the first detection of oxygen in another galaxy, but the amount detected is also more than has ever been found anywhere outside of our own solar system.

The find could help scientists learn more about the molecular outflow from such galactic nuclei.

"This first detection of extragalactic molecular oxygen provides an ideal tool to study active galactic nucleus-driven molecular outflows on dynamic timescales of tens of megayears," the team wrote.

Source: Independent | Comments (9)

Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #1 Posted by Myles 4 years ago
I won't pretend to understand how they know it is oxygen, but I wonder what the chances are that they are incorrect?  
Comment icon #2 Posted by OpenMindedSceptic 4 years ago
Always a possibility but actually low. They have probably used spectroscopic analysis which is pretty accurate. 
Comment icon #3 Posted by spud the mackem 4 years ago
Does this mean that any life which may have evolved due to the oxygen , has a 1/2 a billion light years start on us , as the light we are seeing now started out 1/2 a billion light years ago , or have I got it wrong . The time and distance is impossible to imagine .
Comment icon #4 Posted by OverSword 4 years ago
They detected oxygen that occurred half a billion years ago.
Comment icon #5 Posted by Waspie_Dwarf 4 years ago
An incorrect guess. This is not what gas chromatography is. Gas chromatography is a laboratory method of analysing chemicals by splitting them into individual components and passing them through a detector. The gas, in the name, refers to the "mobile phase" not what is being detected. In other words it is a gas that pushes the substance to be analysed through  a column where it is separated. This differentiates ot from liquid chromatography. Gas chromatography requires a sample to be physically injected into the apparatus and so is not appropriate to use on a sample which is half a billion lig... [More]
Comment icon #6 Posted by Waspie_Dwarf 4 years ago
As a former analytical chemist that used gas and liquid chromatography for more than two decades I can categorically confirm that not only were you guessing, but you were guessing wrongly. 
Comment icon #7 Posted by Waspie_Dwarf 4 years ago
Very good. Did you actually read that link? It proves that you guessed wrong. Here is what it says: There is no mention of gas chromatography because you can not analyse a distant gas using that method.  Here is what gas chromatography is: I suggest you read it and learn something rather than spreading false information as a result of incorrect guessing.  Note: In my original post I allowed autocorrect to change my mis-spelled spectroscopy to spectrophotometry. This was a mistake I didn't notice. Spectrophotometry is a different technique... b... [More]
Comment icon #8 Posted by Tom1200 4 years ago
Nope.  A diagram taken out of context with no explanation does nothing to support your argument or help the reader's understanding.  (Also - the red light entering the prism should refract towards the normal, and on leaving must refract away from it.  What schoolboy errors!) Waspie's correct.  Spectroscopy, not chromatography.  For chromatography you need access to the sample under investigation.  To identify chemicals in a distant star/galaxy you analyse the light that reaches us - that's called spectroscopy.  There are emission spectra, where you look for distinctive peaks in light of certai... [More]
Comment icon #9 Posted by Waspie_Dwarf 4 years ago
Your are right that the light took 500 million years to get here. There are two points to be made though. The first is that this is not oxygen associated with the atmosphere of a planet, it is molecular oxygen found in a molecular cloud in interstellar space in the Markarian 231 galaxy and so it is highly unlikely to be associated with life. The second point is that life did not occur on Earth because of oxygen, oxygen occurred in Earth's atmosphere because of life. There was almost no oxygen in Earth's atmosphere until blue-green algae evolved and started producing it as a waste product of ph... [More]

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