Astronomers discover galaxy’s ‘cosmic gas barcode’ eight billion light years away

Researchers have confirmed that electromagnetism in a distant galaxy has the same strength as here on Earth


Researchers from Swinburne University of Technology and the University of Cambridge have confirmed that electromagnetism in a distant galaxy has the same strength as here on Earth.

They observed a quasar – a supermassive black hole with enormously bright surroundings – located behind the galaxy. On its journey toward Earth, some of the quasar’s light was absorbed by gas in the galaxy eight billion years ago, casting shadows at very specific colours.

“The pattern of colours tells us how strong electromagnetism is in this galaxy, and because the quasar is one of the brightest ones known, we were able to make the most precise measurement so far,” says Swinburne PhD student Srdan Kotus.

“We found electromagnetism in this galaxy was the same as here on Earth within just one part per million – about the width of a human hair compared to the size of a sports stadium.”

Electromagnetism is one of the four known fundamental forces of nature.

“Electromagnetism determines almost everything about our everyday world, like the light we receive from the Sun, how we see that light, how sound travels through the air, the size of atoms and how they interact,” says Swinburne’s Michael Murphy.

An artist's impression of a quasar. Image Credit: NASA

An artist’s impression of a quasar. Image Credit: NASA

“But no one knows why electromagnetism has the strength it has and whether it should be constant, or vary, and why.”

Most previous attempts to measure electromagnetism have been limited by instruments called spectrographs – the ‘light rulers’ used to measure the pattern of shadows in the quasar’s rainbow of colours. The researchers used spectrographs at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and 3.6 metre telescope in Chile to make their observations.

“The VLT’s spectrograph is a little inaccurate: it’s a high-quality ruler for measuring light, but the numbers on that ruler are a little offset. So, to make the best measurement, we also used the 3.6 metres telescope’s spectrograph to provide very accurate numbers,” says Kotus.

“For me, finding that electromagnetism is constant over more than half the universe’s age just deepens the mystery – why is it that way? We still don’t know,” Murphy says.

“It’s remarkable that distant galaxies provide such a precise probe of such a fundamental question. With even larger telescopes now being built, we’ll be able to test it even better in the near future.”

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