Take one look at this eyeball-shaped galaxy and you might think that it looks ordinary enough, but look a little closer and you'll find something extraordinary. The mysterious galaxy, IRAS 16399-0937, is actually an enormous cosmic laser.
This is the most detailed image ever taken of the galaxy, which sits 370 million light-years away from Earth. One reason it looks relatively innocuous is that IRAS 16399-0937's laser does not fire in visible light; it fires a microwave beam instead. This technically makes it a "maser" (a microwave laser). Or rather, it's a megamaser, due to its galactic size, according to NASA.
The maser is generated a bit by accident. The galaxy's molecular clouds just happen to be in the correct simulated physical condition to amplify microwave radiation passing through them, centralizing them into a primary beam. Large clouds in our own galaxy have been known to generate masers as well, but the clouds in IRAS 16399-0937 make the entire galaxy serve as an amplifier.
And being a megamaser is only the half of what makes this galaxy so fascinating. As scientists looked at it in closer detail, they found that the galaxy has two cores, a double nucleus. This essentially means that IRAS 16399-0937 is two galaxies that seem to be in the process of merging. Each core is currently about 11,000 light-years from the other, but the merge is causing a swirl of gas and dust that hides the inner turmoil. It's this dynamism that is likely to blame for the galaxy's odd eyeball shape, and the megamaser effect it produces.
Furthermore, the two galaxies likely looked very different from each other before the merge began. The southern one appears to be a starburst region, where new stars are forming at an incredible rate. Meanwhile, the northern nucleus hosts a black hole that is around 100 million times the mass of the sun, according to NASA.
It all goes to prove that our universe has many spectacular surprises. The more detail we obtain, the more dynamic the universe — and the galaxies within — seem to become.