For the first time ever, astronomers have identified molecular oxygen in a galaxy outside the Milky Way.
The discovery of the galaxy with breathing oxygen was made by a team of astronomers at the Astronomical Observatory of Shanghai, led by Junzhi Wang.
This important "first detection of extragalactic molecular oxygen" described in a recent study on The Astrophysical Journal, has great implications for understanding the crucial role of oxygen in the evolution of planets, stars, galaxies and life.
The team identified the presence of molecular oxygen by analyzing the light waves that had reached Earth from Markarian 231, a galaxy about 581 million light years away. No, we can't get there, not even with the fastest star engines studying today.
Why was the discovery only made now?
Ironically, the presence of oxygen in our atmosphere, along with other gases, has traditionally made it difficult to obtain accurate readings of light waves from distant galaxies.
Those light waves are typically absorbed or redirected by the various gaseous elements contained in our atmosphere, making accurate readings almost impossible.
The light waves of Markarian 231, however, came from what is called a almost stellar object, or QSO.
QSOs are distant objects that have a star-like appearance but emit red shifted light, traveling at a lower wave frequency than conventional ones.
Because Markarian 231's light readings originated from a QSO, they had a significantly lower wave frequency than standard light waves, which allowed them to pass through Earth's atmosphere without distortion effects.
The light wave readings were taken in two different positions: the 30-meter IRAM telescope in Granada, Spain, and the northern extended matrix telescope in the French Alps.
Based on the readings, the team estimates that there may be more than 100 times more oxygen in the Markarian 231 galaxy than previously observed in the Milky Way galaxy.
Over the past 20 years, molecular oxygen has been detected in two other locations in the Milky Way: the cloud of Rho Ophiuchi and the Orion nebula.
Breathable oxygen: can you live there?
Humans can breathe pure oxygen for short periods (it is used as a common treatment for some health conditions) but our respiratory systems depend on other elements in the air such as nitrogen and carbon dioxide to function normally.
Breathing pure oxygen for prolonged periods can cause permanent lung damage and oxygen toxicity. The hemoglobin in the blood would be overwhelmed by more oxygen molecules than it can carry.
However, the discovery is sensational because it is believed that oxygen is one of the key elements necessary for the development of life.
The team believes that further research could help us understand how oxygen distributions contribute to the development of galaxies.