Astronomers discover ‘spooky’ object emitting energy in space. They don’t know what it is

  • Astronomers say the “unusual” energy bursts occurred every 20 minutes.
  • There are theories as to what it could be, but the best guess is it’s a slow spinning neutron star.
  • Senior astronomer Seth Shostak said there is no need to think it is a signal from aliens.

A team of astronomers discovered “something unusual” while mapping out the universe – a mysterious object sending bursts of energy every 20 minutes.

The object is around 4,000 light years away, and although that may seem far, its energy bursts were so big that it was one of the largest radio sources in the sky. The burst would happen for one minute, every 20 minutes before it would disappear for a few hours and then repeat the cycle.

A peer-reviewed study on the discovery of the unknown energy source was published in the journal Nature on Wednesday. 

“This object was appearing and disappearing over a few hours during our observations,” she said,” Natasha Hurley-Walker, astrophysicist from Curtin University in Australia and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “That was completely unexpected. It was kind of spooky for an astronomer because there’s nothing known in the sky that does that.”

The object was first discovered in March 2018 by Curtin doctoral student Tyrone O’Doherty using the Murchison Widefield Array telescope in outback Western Australia. The multi-million dollar telescope has a wide frequency and range field of view, making it possible to spot something so far away. O’Doherty said it was “exciting” that the discovery turned out to be “such a peculiar object.”

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Astronomers have detected objects in space that turn on and off before, as they are typically the death of a massive star or what’s left of one. Curtin astrophysicist and co-author Gemma Anderson said these flashes of lights are called transients.

But what makes this object unusual is that it doesn’t behave like a transient. A slow transient would have energy bursts that occur over the course of a few days before disappearing for months at a time. Fast transients flash on and off within milliseconds or seconds, so seeing one flash for up to a minute would be unprecedented. 

The team does have guesses as to what it can be, but they still aren’t exactly sure. One idea Hurley-Walker has is it could be an “ultra-long period magnetar,” a type of slowly spinning neutron star with a strong magnetic field. However, it was something thought to only exist theoretically.

An artist’s impression of what the object might look like if it’s a magnetar. Magnetars are incredibly magnetic neutron stars, some of which sometimes produce radio emission. Known magnetars rotate every few seconds, but theoretically, “ultra-long period magnetars” could rotate much more slowly.

“Nobody expected to directly detect one like this because we didn’t expect them to be so bright,” Hurley-Walker said. “Somehow it’s converting magnetic energy to radio waves much more effectively than anything we’ve seen before.”

Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute who was not involved in the research, compared the unknown object to a lighthouse, in that the flashes of light indicate that it’s rotating. He said that most astronomers would agree with Hurley-Walker in that it’s likely a dead star.

He added there is also no need to panic; it’s not “alien intelligence” trying to reach out to other parts of the universe because it is “obviously nature.”

“The novel thing here is that we’ve not seen anything like that before,” Shostak told USA TODAY. 

As of Wednesday, the object has yet to emit another burst of energy, but Hurley-Walker is keeping an eye on it with the Murchison Widefield Array telescope.

Shostak noted that the eventual completion of the Square Kilometre Array telescope, which would be the largest radio telescope ever built, will help astronomers examine space even more, which may result in other objects like this being discovered in the future, and a concrete idea of what they are. 

“They have some idea what to look for, and that always makes it much quicker to find number two and then number three. At that point, when you found three of them, you can say OK, this is just another another animal in the zoo, this is just another astronomical object,” he said. 

Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.