Astronomers Discover Mysterious Power Source Unlike Anything Ever Seen
As is well known, the universe is full of mysteries, and scientists are amazed at each new discovery about the cosmos. This time, a team of researchers mapping radio waves in space has identified something unusual that releases a giant burst of energy and is unlike anything seen before.
According to the astronomers involved in the discovery, which was published in the journal Nature, it could be a neutron star or a white dwarf — collapsed cores of stars — with an ultra-powerful magnetic field.
As it spins in space, the strange object sends out a beam of radiation that crosses Earth's line of sight, according to the study, for one minute in 20, making it one of the brightest radio sources in the sky.
Object is in our “galactic backyard”
Natasha Hurley-Walker, from Curtin University's International Center for Radio Astronomy Research, led the team that made the discovery. "This object was appearing and disappearing for a few hours in our observations," she said. “This was completely unexpected. It was kind of scary for an astronomer because there's nothing known in the sky that does that. And it's actually very close to us — about 4,000 light-years away. It's in our galactic backyard."
According to Natasha, the object was discovered by Tyrone O'Doherty, a student at Curtin University, who was using the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope in the Western Australian outback and a new technique developed by himself. “It's exciting that the font I identified last year has become such a peculiar object,” said O'Doherty, who is now doing a PhD at Curtin. "MWA's wide field of view and extreme sensitivity are perfect for scanning the entire sky and detecting the unexpected."
Objects that turn on and off in the universe are nothing new to astronomers, who call them transient. Astrophysicist Gemma Anderson, a co-author of the study and a professor at Curtin, said, "By studying transients, you're watching the death of a massive star or the activity of the remnants it leaves behind."
Slow transients like supernovas can appear over the course of a few days and disappear after a few months. Fast transients, like a type of neutron star called a pulsar, flicker in and out in milliseconds or seconds.
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Astronomers are monitoring the object
According to Gemma, the mystery object was “incredibly bright” and smaller than the Sun, emitting highly polarized radio waves — which suggested the object had an extremely strong magnetic field.
For Natasha, the observations correspond to a predicted astrophysical object called an ultra-long-period magnetar. "It's a type of slowly rotating neutron star that was predicted to exist theoretically," she said. “But no one expected to directly detect one like this because we didn't expect them to be so bright. Somehow, it's converting magnetic energy into radio waves far more effectively than anything we've seen before.”
She is monitoring the object with the MWA to see if it turns on again. "If that happens, there are telescopes across the Southern Hemisphere and even orbiting it that can point directly at it," he revealed, adding that he plans to look for more of these unusual objects in the MWA's vast archives. "Further detections will tell astronomers whether this was a rare single event or a vast new population that we had never noticed before," said the researcher.
According to MWA team director Professor Steven Tingay, the telescope is a precursor instrument to the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) — a global initiative to build the world's largest radio telescopes in Western Australia and South Africa. this object, and studying its detailed properties, is that we have been able to collect and store all the data that the MWA has produced over nearly the last decade at the Pawsey Research Supercomputing Center. Being able to look back through such a massive dataset when you find an object is pretty unique in astronomy,” he said. "There are undoubtedly many more gems to be discovered by the MWA and SKA in the years to come."
The MWA is located at the Murchison Radio Astronomy Observatory in Western Australia, which is managed by the CSIRO, Australia's National Science Agency, and was created with the support of the Australian government.
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