The 560 million light-year-old quasar,” Markarian 231, is the largest amount of oxygen scientists have detected outside the solar system to date, Science News reported. The discovery surprised scientists, who were previously thought to be ubiquitous in space between stars and largely non-existent outside the Milky Way.
“Makarian 231” is located in the constellation Of the Big Bear, about 560 million light-years from Earth, and is the closest quasar to Earth. In the galaxy, the gas rotates around a supermassive black hole and becomes very hot, emitting bright light.
Astronomers believe interstellar oxygen is rare because oxygen atoms and water molecules freeze on dust particles, locking oxygen. But in stellar cradles such as the Orion Nebula, shock waves from bright, newborn stars peel water ice off the dust, “rescue” oxygen atoms, which meet each other to form oxygen.
One possible explanation, says Paul Goldsmith, an astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is that Makarian 231 has undergone a process of oxygen formation that is more powerful than the Orion Nebula. “Makarian 231” is a high-yielding star factory that produces new stars 100 times faster than the Milky Way, spewing out 700 solar masses a year, and the high-speed rotating gas from the center of the galaxy could crash into the gas in the galaxy disk, peeling water ice off the dust particles to form oxygen. Oxygen, in turn, keeps the galaxy active: molecular radiation helps cool gases, making some of them more likely to collapse and produce more new stars within the galaxy.
Experts say the presence of oxygen outside the Milky Way is crucial for the discovery of extraterrestrial life and even for a second Earth.