This celestial object shone beautifully for three months before disappearing. Astronomers are fascinated.
By the end of the year, the study’s author discovered a particularly unique source of light that was present in early 2018 data but had vanished within a few months.
The source was given the designation GLEAM-X J162759.5-523504 after the survey it was discovered in and its location.
Radio transients are sources that emerge and vanish and are frequently a hint of great physics at work.
The Investigation Starts
He thought it would be something he already knew about—something that would shift slowly over months and maybe lead to an exploding star or a large collision in space.
He tested if the brightness of the source corresponds to its frequency to better understand the physics in the electromagnetic spectrum. After the examination pointed out the exact area it was recorded at various frequencies before and after the discovery, and it wasn’t there.
Due to telescope calibration issues, the Earth’s ionosphere reflecting TV signals, or airplanes and satellites flying above, false signals do appear from time to time.
However, 18 minutes later, there it was again, at precisely the same spot and at exactly the same frequency—unlike anything astronomers had ever seen before.
A global research effort was looking for recurring cosmic radio signals sent at a particular frequency. It’s known as the Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Search.
The Mystery Deepens
This light source was really bright. It was outshining everything else in the observation, which is no small feat.
The brightest radio sources are supermassive black holes, which spew gigantic jets of matter into space at almost the speed of light. But what science discovered was brighter than that.
Colleagues were starting to notice, saying it’s much too sluggish to be a pulsar. However, it is too brilliant to be a flare star. What exactly is this?
He detected the source over a broad variety of frequencies: the power required to make it could only originate from a natural source, not an artificial…or extraterrestrial one.
The radio waves repeated like clockwork roughly three times each hour, much like pulsars—highly magnetized revolving neutron stars that shoot forth radio waves from their poles.
In fact, he could estimate when they would appear to one-tenth of a second precision.
The study’s author went to a massive data archive: 40 petabytes of radio astronomy data acquired by Western Australia’s Murchison Widefield Array during its eight years of operation. He combed through hundreds of observations using sophisticated supercomputers and discovered 70 additional detections over three months in 2018, but none before or after.
The interesting thing about radio transients is that they can tell you how far away they are if one has adequate frequency coverage. This is because lower radio frequencies arrive somewhat later than higher ones, depending on how much distance they’ve traversed.
The latest finding is around 4,000 light-years away—far away, yet still in our cosmic neighborhood.
The scientist discovered that the radio pulses were almost totally polarized. In astrophysics, this typically signifies it have a strong magnetic field as a source.
The pulses were also changing form in less than a half-second period, implying that the source must be less than half a light second wide, significantly smaller than our Sun.
Everyone was ecstatic as he shared the outcome with colleagues all across the globe, but no one knew for sure what it was.
The Verdict is Yet Out
This tiny, spinning, highly magnetic astrophysical object has two main explanations: a white dwarf or a neutron star.
These are the magnetic fields that remain when stars run out of fuel and collapse, producing magnetic fields billions to quintillions of times stronger than our Sun’s.
While scientists have yet to discover a neutron star that operates in this manner, theorists have predicted that such objects, known as “ultra-long period magnetars,” may exist.
Even still, no one anticipated to be that brilliant.
When he initially began attempting to comprehend this source, his expectations were skewed: transient radio sources either change swiftly, like pulsars or slowly, like the fading relics of a supernova.
As astronomers construct new telescopes that will capture massive amounts of data, we must keep our brains and search strategies open to unexpected possibilities.
If we choose to look, the cosmos is filled with miracles.