Scientists working at Curtin University recently stumbled across a baffling phenomenon in their data that has their team of radio astronomers scratching their heads. An honors student named Tyrone O’Doherty discovered the source while using the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope in Western Australia. The mystery object gave off intense light in approximately 20-minute intervals, which had previously been unheard of for a ‘transient’, the field’s term for objects that pulse on and off. Most transients either flicker much slower, in the range of days to months, or extremely rapidly, in seconds or even milliseconds. The object also emitted frequencies at a much greater intensity than expected, possibly outshining even the immense power of a supermassive black hole. Lead astrophysicist Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker poured over 8 years of data recorded by the MWA and found 70 more instances of the phenomenon over a 3-month period in 2018 after which the object stopped picking up, adding to the confusion. Scientists were able to determine the object is approximately 4000 lightyears away from us, based on the transmission frequencies present in the pulses. They also concluded the pulses were polarized, meaning they likely came from a source of strong magnetism, and the shape of the pulses indicated the object that produced them was much smaller than our sun.
These factors lead astrophysicists to believe the object is either a white dwarf or neutron star, the remnants of a star dying and collapsing into itself. And while they have never been observed, theorists believe neutron stars called “ultra-long period magnetars”, objects that behave similarly to the unknown phenomenon, could exist. They however did not predict that they could be so bright. Dr Hurley-Walker is continuing to monitor the object to see if it begins emitting energy again, with plans to search for more object that behave in this manner.
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