'Spooky' Find Could Be New Kind of Star

Signals never observed before may point to ultra-long period magnetar
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 27, 2022 11:18 AM CST
In Our 'Galactic Backyard,' Signals Never Seen Before
An artist's impression of what the suspected magnetar might look like.   (International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research)

(Newser) – Something in our galaxy was emitting radio wave beams every 20 minutes, unlike anything observed before, and astronomers think they know what it is. "It's definitely not aliens," says Natasha Hurley-Walker, radio astronomer and lead author of a study on the mysterious object, published in the journal Nature, per the Guardian. Rather, the giant bursts of energy might have come from a slow-rotating neutron star with an ultra-powerful magnetic field. A so-called ultra-long period magnetar, with "the most powerful magnetic field of any known object in the universe," has only been theoretically predicted, never observed, the Guardian reports.

One of Hurley-Walker's students, Curtin University undergrad Tyrone O'Doherty, first identified an unusual source of radio wave beams while perusing data taken from the Murchison Widefield Array telescope in Western Australia in early 2018. When Hurley-Walker later realized the polarized pulses, lasting between 30 to 60 seconds, occurred every 18 minutes over three months, "I broke out in a cold sweat," she writes at the Conversation. "It was kind of spooky for an astronomer because there’s nothing known in the sky that does that," she adds in a release. And this had come from "our galactic backyard," about 4,000 light years away.

Neutron stars, made up of the collapsed core of an exploded supermassive star, initially spin incredibly fast, giving off up to a thousand pulses of radio waves per second. As they slow down, they lose the energy to emit these pulses, and are generally thought to become undetectable. But this apparently slow-spinning star was emitting "one of the brightest radio sources in the sky," per the Guardian. It was somehow "converting magnetic energy to radio waves much more effectively than anything we've seen before," says Hurley-Walker. "More detections will tell astronomers whether this was a rare one-off event or a vast new population we'd never noticed before." (Read more discoveries stories.)

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