SYDNEY, Jan. 27 – Australian researchers have discovered a strange rotating object in the Milky Way that they say is unlike anything astronomers have ever seen.
The object, first spotted by a university student working on his undergraduate thesis, releases a huge burst of radio energy three times per hour.
The pulse comes “every 18.18 minutes, like clockwork,” said astrophysicist Natasha Hurley-Walker, who led the survey after the student’s discovery, using a telescope in the Western Australian outback known as the Murchison Widefield Array.
Although there are other objects in the universe that turn on and off – such as pulsars – Hurley-Walker said 18.18 minutes is a frequency that has never been observed before.
Finding this object was “a bit scary for an astronomer,” she said, “because there’s nothing known in the sky that does that.”
The research team is now working to figure out what they found.
Sifting through years of data, they were able to establish a few facts: the object is about 4,000 light-years from Earth, is incredibly bright, and has an extremely strong magnetic field.
But there are still many mysteries to be solved.
“If you do all the math, you find that they shouldn’t have enough power to produce those kinds of radio waves every 20 minutes,” Hurley-Walker said.
“That just shouldn’t be possible.”
The object may be something researchers have theorized to exist but have never seen called an “ultra long period magnetar.”
It could also be a white dwarf, a remnant of a collapsed star.
“But it’s quite unusual too. We only know of one white dwarf pulsar, and nothing as large as this,” Hurley-Walker said.
“Of course, it could be something we had never even thought of – it could be an entirely new type of object.”
On the question of whether the strong and consistent radio signal from space could have been sent by another life form, Hurley-Walker conceded, “I was worried it was extraterrestrials.”
But the research team was able to observe the signal over a wide range of frequencies.
“That means it has to be a natural process, it’s not an artificial signal,” Hurley-Walker said.
The next step for researchers is to search for more of these strange objects across the universe.
“More detections will tell astronomers if this was a rare one-time event or a large new population that we’ve never noticed before,” Hurley-Walker said.
The team’s article on the object was published in the latest edition of the journal Nature. —AFP