What causes the mysterious radio waves coming from the center of the Milky Way?

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The center of the Milky Way is a mysterious place. Astronomers believe there is a supermassive black hole there, although it could be dark matter instead. The region is densely populated with stars, dominated by the red giants. And because of all the dust between Earth and the galactic center, we can’t see anything with visible light, ultraviolet light, or low energy x-rays.

But we can detect radio waves, and some unexplained ones come from the center of the galaxy and add to the mystery.

Astronomers have discovered a transient source of radio waves in the center of the Milky Way. The research team presented their findings in an article titled “Discovery of ASKAP J173608.2–321635 as a highly polarized transient point source with the Australian SKA Pathfinder. The main author is Ziteng Wang, Ph.D. student at the School of Physics, University of Sydney. The article is published in The Astrophysical Journal.

The team knew they had found something remarkable. “Looking towards the center of the Galaxy, we found ASKAP J173608.2-321635, named after its contact information,” said co-author Prof Tara Murphy. “This object was unique in that it was initially invisible, became shiny, faded and then reappeared. This behavior was extraordinary.

“The strangest property of this new signal is that it has a very strong polarization. This means that its light oscillates in only one direction, but that direction rotates over time, ”said lead author Wang. “The brightness of the object also varies considerably, by a factor of 100, and the signal turns on and off seemingly randomly. We have never seen anything like it.

What is that? There are many different types of variable stars and objects in the sky. They emit variable light across the spectrum.

Could it be a low mass star or a substellar object? Could it be a pulsar or a transient magnetar? According to the authors, none of these possibilities correspond to the observations.

“At first we thought it could be a pulsar – a very dense type of spinning dead star – or a type of star that emits huge solar flares. But the signals from this new source are not what we expect from these types of celestial objects, ”Wang said. The object is strongly polarized, much like a pulsar, but the team did not detect any pulsation in its data.

They also considered magnetars as a source, which are neutron stars with extreme magnetic fields. But the data also didn’t match what we know about magnetars. “All radio magnetars exhibit very high degrees of polarization, but their flat radio spectrum, unlike what we see for ASKAP J173608.2? 321635, makes a magnetar an unlikely interpretation,” they write in their article.

This study image shows the location of the variable radio source and other objects in the galactic center. Yellow outlines show ASKAP detection, while cyan outlines show MeerKAT detection. The most suitable positions of ASKAP and MeerKAT are indicated in yellow + and cyan × symbols, respectively. The red inverted Y symbols show the sources of the VVV catalog, a statement of the variables in the infrared. The red star of Gemini is a well-known source found with the Gemini Observatory. Image credit: Wang et al, 2021

The team detected six radio signals from the object over the course of nine months. When they looked for the object in visible light, they found nothing. So they decided to try to detect the object with another radio telescope in Australia, the Parkes Observatory. They found nothing.

Undeterred, the team made follow-up observations with the MeerKAT Radio Telescope in South Africa, which is even more sensitive. They continued to check with the MeerKAT to see if the intermittent signal would reappear. “We then tried out the more sensitive MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa. Because the signal was intermittent, we watched it for 15 minutes every few weeks, hoping we would see it again, ”said Dr Murphy.

This is what the center of the Milky Way looks like for the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa.  Image Credit: By MeerKAT Public Release Photo - https://gizmodo.com/new-south-african-telescope-releases-epic-image-of-the-1827572028, public domain, https: //commons.wikimedia .org / w / index.php? curid = 70866309
This is what the center of the Milky Way looks like for the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa. Image Credit: By MeerKAT Public Release Photo – https://gizmodo.com/new-south-african-telescope-releases-epic-image-of-the-1827572028, public domain, https: //commons.wikimedia .org / w / index.php? curid = 70866309

They were lucky. The signal came back. But not in a way they expected.

“Fortunately the signal returned, but we found that the source’s behavior was drastically different – the source was gone in just one day, even though it had lasted for weeks in our previous ASKAP sightings,” Murphy said.

Detecting the transient signal was a boost for the team, but it didn’t help them identify the nature of the source. The team thought it might be a type of object called Galactic center radio transient (GCRT). The new object was detected just four degrees from the galactic center. It shares some similarities with a GCRT, but the problem is that astronomers don’t know exactly what a GCRT is either.

“The information we have has parallels with another emerging class of mysterious objects known as Galactic Center radio transients, including one dubbed the ‘cosmic burper’,” Mr. Wang’s co-director said, Professor David Kaplan of the University of Wisconsin. Milwaukee.

“Although our new object, ASKAP J173608.2-321635, shares some properties with GCRTs, there are also differences. And we don’t really understand those sources, anyway, so that adds to the mystery. “

This is a composite infrared image of the galactic center of the Milky Way.  It shows new details in intricate structures in the hot ionized gas swirling around the central 300 light years.  Image credit: By Hubble: NASA, ESA and QD Wang (University of Massachusetts, Amherst);  Spitzer: NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and S. Stolovy (Spitzer Science Center / Caltech) - NASA Image of the day, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9378571
This is a composite infrared image of the galactic center of the Milky Way. It shows new details in intricate structures in the hot ionized gas swirling around the central 300 light years. Image credit: By Hubble: NASA, ESA and QD Wang (University of Massachusetts, Amherst); Spitzer: NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and S. Stolovy (Spitzer Science Center / Caltech) – NASA Image of the day, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9378571

For now, the new object will remain a mystery. Future installations will have more power and sensitivity. The Australian SKA itself is just one part of the eventual Square Kilometer Array, an international radio interferometer that will include thousands of satellite dishes around the world. It should be online within the next decade.

“Over the next decade, the transcontinental Square kilometer table (SKA) the radio telescope will be brought online. He will be able to make sensitive charts of the sky every day, ”said Professor Murphy. “We expect the power of this telescope to help us solve mysteries such as this latest discovery, but it will also open up vast new areas of the cosmos for exploration in the radio spectrum.”

Future studies will uncover more data on this new object and others like it. Will it turn out to be a radio transient from the galactic center?

“ASKAP J173608.2? 321635 is further notable for its location towards the GC, although we are not yet sure if this is a coincidence or if this location is related to its nature: similar questions could be raised about GCRT sources. Future in-depth research will quantify the exact number of these sources at different locations in the sky, ”the authors write.

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