Astronauts wear those bubble helmets for a reason, but what if you could just step on some planet in an alien galaxy and breathe without an oxygen tank?
Molecular oxygen has been detected outside our galaxy for the first time ever. Molecular oxygen, or O2, meaning each molecule is made of two oxygen atoms, is the same type we breathe here on Earth without even thinking about it. We thought Earthlings were alone in that. Not to say that aliens (if they exist) breathe O2 or even need it, but finding it 600 million light years away could tell us something about how it might have helped worlds outside our own evolve and even possibly spawn life.
Astronomer Junzhi Wang, of the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory, and his team said that this was the “first detection of extragalactic molecular oxygen [in another galaxy]” in a study recently published in The Astrophysical Journal.
That galaxy is Markarian 231. It is one of the most intense known infrared galaxies, whose wavelengths are too long for the naked eye to see. Luminosity that high is usually a sign of a starburst — stars being born at an unusually fast rate — in most galaxies. Markarian 231’s is thought to instead come from the accretion disc around a quasar, or a supermassive black hole (more like two of them in this galaxy) actively devouring matter. Light and anything else drawn to this quasar by its gravitational force is heated up until it grows luminous enough to drown out everything else in the galaxy.
Oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen and helium, but that doesn't mean finding it so far away was easy.
Telescopic eyes that looked deep into the cosmos helped Wang’s team of astronomers see what was going on in this galaxy. Using the IRAM 30-meter telescope in Spain and the NOEMA interferometer in France, both ground-based radio observatories, they were able to make out the presence of molecular oxygen emissions in Markarian 231. Finding oxygen using telescopes on Earth can be tricky because the atmosphere absorbs most of the wavelengths that would otherwise give it away in observations.
But wait. Could you hypothetically just wander around and inhale that oxygen?
If we were to actually breathe the oxygen in Markarian 231, we’d need some sort of device to adjust incoming carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen, and other gases our lungs were made for breathing on Earth. So the answer is technically no. If humans were going to colonize some planet over there, we could possibly harvest the O2 and add the necessary elements to make it breathable, or split the molecules and merge the oxygen atoms with hydrogen to create drinkable water. This obviously isn’t happening anytime soon. We’d need 600 years just to get there traveling at the speed of light, something technology won’t be catching up with for a while.
Markarian 231 is still a fascinating place to study even if it would be impossible to breathe unassisted over there. It has 100 times more O2 than our own, most of which is thought to have been blasted to its fringe by extreme quasar winds. Quasar-dominated galaxies like this are worth studying to find out what quasars vomit into space. They could also demystify how oxygen factors into habitability.
“New astrochemical models are needed to explain the implied high molecular oxygen abundance [so far] away from the center of galaxies,” Wang said.
Whether there is any strange life-form out there actually breathing that oxygen, we can only imagine.