By Claire Gordon • 27 January 2022 • 19:22
An image showing the Milky Way as viewed from Earth, with the star icon showing the position of the spooky unknown object. Credit: ICRAR
Australian scientists have discovered a spinning object in the Milky Way that they say is unlike anything that has been seen before. The spooky unknown object has been observed to release a huge burst of radio energy for a full minute every 18 minutes.
Objects in space that pulse energy are not unusual but researchers say the fact this new discovery turns on for a full minute is something not seen before. The team who discovered it are working to understand more.
The spooky unknown object was first discovered by a Curtin University Honours student named Tyrone O’Doherty. The discovery took place in a region of the Western Australian outback known as the Murchison Widefield Array, using a telescope and a new technique he had developed.
Mr O’Doherty was part of a team led by astrophysicist Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR).
“[It] was appearing and disappearing over a few hours during our observations,” she was quoted as saying in a media release from ICRAR that documented the discovery.
“That was completely unexpected. It was kind of spooky for an astronomer because there’s nothing known in the sky that does that.”
Objects that turn on and off in the Universe are not new to astronomers—they call them “transients”.
But an object that turned on for a full minute was “really weird,” ICRAR-Curtin astrophysicist Dr Gemma Anderson, was quoted as saying in the release. ICRAR has looked back through years of data to establish where the spooky unknown object is. They worked out that the object is about 4,000 light-years from Earth, is incredibly bright and has an extremely strong magnetic field.
Theories around what the object might be include a neutron star or a white dwarf – a term used for the remnants of a collapsed star. However, much of the discovery remains a mystery.
“More detections will tell astronomers whether this was a rare one-off event or a vast new population we’d never noticed before,” Dr Hurley-Walker said. “I’m looking forward to understanding this object and then extending the search to find more.”
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