[Thursday, 5/31/2018] The European Space Agency (ESA) has recently discovered an anomalous laser emission “shooting out” of the Ant Nebula (Mz 3), which is located nearly 8,000 light-years away from our solar system. While utilizing the Herschel Space Observatory – the largest infrared telescope – they noticed an extremely odd beam, but were unable to explain, with certainty, exactly what produced it.
History and characteristics of the Ant Nebula
Officially named Mz 3, or Menzel 3, the nebula was discovered in 1922 by Theoretical Astronomer and Astrophysicist Donald Howard Menzel. Per Wikipedia, it is a young bipolar planetary nebula (PN) and is situated in the constellation Norma. The PN is composed of a bright core and four distinct high-velocity outflows. A companion, such as a red giant, is thought to have caused the dense gas region(s) to form at the center of Mz 3, with a white dwarf star providing ionizing photons.
One of the strangest features of the nebula is its “chakram“; a large, but faint, ellipse that is located in the middle of the PN’s nucleus. In the educational text-book Astronomy and Astrophysics, author Miguel Santander-Garcia states (paraphrased):
“The ellipse is historically linked to the development of the central star (white dwarf) due to its symmetric and ordered kinematic properties, as they relate to the nucleus.”
Mz 3’s collimation qualities, in addition to its unusual spectrum, has earned it the nickname “The Chamber of Horrors” of planetary nebulae.
What is causing the strange emission?
Several theories are floating around both online and in the scientific community that aim to explain why Mz 3’s laser exists. According to Mysterious Universe, Menzel had theorized that “certain types of radioactive gases can accrete in dense clouds close to stars, and these gases can amplify stars’ light enough to produce beams of laser light.”
In a University of Manchester article, Dr. Isabel Aleman, the lead author of Herschel Planetary Nebula Survey (HerPlaNS): hydrogen recombination laser lines in Mz 3, said the very rare laser that was witnessed coming from the Ant Nebula is only produced when a specific range of physical conditions are present. She continued:
“Such emission has only been identified in a handful of objects before and it is a happy coincidence that we detected the kind of emission that Menzel suggested, in one of the planetary nebulae that he discovered.”
Aleman’s paper’s abstract describes how peculiar the finding is:
“The presence of H I recombination lines (HRLs) in this range is unusual for PNe and has not been reported in Mz 3 before. Our analysis indicates that the HRLs we observed are enhanced by laser effect occurring in the core of Mz 3.”
Signs of intelligent life?
Others are leaning towards a more unorthodox and unnatural explanation for the bizarre beam’s existence, stating that perhaps an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization is attempting intergalactic communication.
Although no decipherable transmissions have been captured from the Ant Nebula’s laser, it may still be possible that such communication methods have been carried out, considering even humans pursued similar endeavors in the past, such as the “Golden Record” which was installed on both the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1977. The record contained images, natural and human-made sounds, music and greetings in over 50 languages, including the ancient Sumerian saying “𒁲𒈠𒃶𒈨𒂗 silim-ma hé-me-en,” which translates to “May all be well” in English.
Even if Mz 3’s extraordinary laser beam did come from an advanced alien species, they could be long gone now since the nebula is located so far away (about 8,000 light-years). The speed of light is extremely fast, clocking in at a blazing 186,000 miles per second, but it still takes an eternity to travel from one star or galaxy to the next. If our own Sun “burned out” on a whim, we wouldn’t notice it for approximately 8.3 minutes!
Nevertheless, it would be extremely interesting if we could finally make contact with others not from this world, even if it means receiving a one-way message.
Who knows – that day may come soon enough.
Main image credit: Wikimedia
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