HST Wide-Field Image of 3C 264 (2014)
NASA/ESA/E. Meyer (STScI)
By Charlotte Alter
May 27, 2015

If you thought the destructive laserlike beams from Star Wars’ Death Star were just a figment of George Lucas’s imagination, think again– beams of energy powerful enough to cross galaxies are real, and the Hubble Space Station just got a video of one.

You’re watching an extragalactic jet of gas traveling at 98% the speed of light, launched from a massive black hole that could weigh a billion times the mass of the sun. The gaseous stream formed by the magnetic fields of the enormous black hole looks almost like a laser, but photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope reveal that the jet is actually made of multiple globes of material strung together like pearls.

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When Eileen Meyer of the Space Telescope Science Institute put these images together into a time lapse, she discovered that each globe was rear-ending the one in front of it, creating a shock collision that further accelerates the particles into a beam of radiation, and causes them to brighten.

“Something like this has never been seen before in an extragalactic jet,” Meyer said in a statement. “This will allow us a very rare opportunity to see how the kinetic energy of the collision is dissipated into radiation.”

But this beam of radiation is coming from a host galaxy 260 million light-years away, which means we’re seeing it as it looked before the dinosaurs existed.

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