It's Blinked in Space Every 22 Minutes for 30 Years

Astronomers never spotted unusual magnetar because they didn't expect it to be there
By Steve Huff,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 30, 2023 5:25 PM CDT
It's Blinked in Space Every 22 Minutes for 30 Years
This image from video animation provided by NASA depicts a powerful X-ray burst erupting from a magnetar, a supermagnetized version of a stellar remnant known as a neutron star.   (USRA/NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center via AP)

Writer Aldous Huxley said "consistency is contrary to nature." He'd maybe never heard of neutron stars or fast radio bursts. A study noted by Gizmodo and published in Nature found that a rotating neutron star with a powerful magnetic field, or a magnetar, has puzzled astronomers since its discovery because of an unusually long period between bursts—it pulses every 22 minutes. In a news release about the study, conducted by scientists at Australian's Curtin University, lead study author Natasha Hurley-Walker said the neutron star, which is 15,000 light years from Earth and poetically named GPM J1839–10, is a "remarkable object" that "challenges our understanding of neutron stars and magnetars, which are some of the most exotic and extreme objects in the Universe."

Researchers determined through examining radiotelescope observation records worldwide that it has been pulsing at the same rate since at least 1988. No one had discovered it because its long time between bursts (the duration is usually a matter of seconds or a few minutes) was too unexpected. In fact, this is only the second such "ultra-long period magnetar" discovered. As Hurley-Walker put it, astronomers missed it "because they hadn't expected to find anything like it." While the star has a name and scientists have a basic understanding of what's happening with it, there's plenty of mystery, too. It's "spinning way too slowly to produce radio waves—it's below the death line," says Hurley-Walker. So, if it is "a magnetar, it shouldn't be possible for this object to produce radio waves. But we're seeing them."

In an essay Hurley-Walker wrote for The Conversation, she addressed one question many might ask about such a consistent phenomenon: Is it aliens? While it may be "tempting to try to explain a new phenomenon this way," Hurley-Walker calls this line of thinking a "cop-out" in her essay. "It doesn't encourage us to keep thinking, observing and testing new ideas." She termed it "the 'aliens of the gaps' approach." Still, she admits it is "a cosmic mystery," and that in the future we may have more answers about it, with "creative follow-up observations, and more analysis." (More astronomy stories.)

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