A mystery space object is pulsating in a way that scientists have never witnessed before. It might be an unusual neutron star, the relic of a huge star that had exploded. Examining celestial objects like it might help us better understand the death throes of stars.
The Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), a radio telescope in Australia, was used by Natasha Hurley-Walker of Curtin University in Perth, Australia, and her colleagues to discover this object. They went through archival data recorded by the MWA in early 2018 after noticing a bombardment of radio waves that appeared and then vanished and discovered 71 additional pulses.
The object, known as GLEAM-X J162759.5-523504.3 and located roughly 4000 light-years away, discharged massive quantities of energy with each pulse. ‘The brightness here is really crazy – really, really, really extreme. We did not expect to find anything so bright’, Hurley-Walker said in a press conference.
It flashed brightly for 30 to 60 seconds every 18.18 minutes at a steady pace. Nothing like this has ever been discovered before; most flashing radio objects in the sky pulse far quicker, lighting and vanishing in a couple of seconds. ‘No one really thought of looking for objects on this timescale because we couldn’t think of any mechanisms that produce them, and yet they exist’, said Hurley-Walker.
The pulsing suggests that the object is rotating, and other measurements of its light show that it has a strong magnetic field. This led the researchers to believe it was a magnetar, a type of neutron star with a very strong magnetic field, although how a magnetar could revolve so slowly and glow so brightly is unclear.