This strange object “lights up” in the sky three times an hour

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A never-before-seen object has been found 4,000 light-years away, releasing a giant burst of energy three times an hour. The behavior is similar to that of pulsars, except that they turn on and off in milliseconds or seconds. The new object glows for just 60 seconds every twenty minutes.

The beam of radiation emitted by the object at long intervals crosses our line of sight and, whenever it appears in radio telescopes, becomes one of the brightest radio sources in the sky. The team that found it is considering some possibilities, such as exotic neutron stars or a white dwarf with a surprisingly strong magnetic field.

Objects that “turn on and off” in the sky are called transients and are familiar to astronomers. Among them are supernovae (slow transients), which can appear over days and disappear after a few months, and pulsars (fast transients), which glow for seconds or milliseconds, like a “flashing light” in the sky. .

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However, none of them are as slow as the new object. Smaller than the Sun and brighter than expected, it emits highly polarized radio waves, suggesting that its magnetic field — the one responsible for polarizing electromagnetic waves — is quite powerful. When polarized, radio waves are oriented in the same direction.

Dr. Natasha Hurley-Walker, from the Curtin University node of the International Center for Research in Radio Astronomy, said the observations coincide with a theoretical object called an “ultra-long period magnetar.” Although predicted by astrophysicists, it has never been seen before.

Magnetars are a type of neutron star with an ultra-powerful magnetic field, and science predicts that some of them can spin slowly. “But nobody expected to directly detect one like this because we didn’t expect it to be that bright,” explains Hurley-Walker. “Somehow it’s converting magnetic energy into radio waves much more effectively than anything we’ve seen before.”

Now, astronomers need to detect other objects similar to this one to find out what it is and how rare or common they are in our galaxy. If this object took this long to discover, it is possible that it is a larger population of objects that had never been found before.

If this is a one-time event, however, scientists will only have the data from a single sample to analyze and classify the object correctly. A great ally in this research will be the Square Kilometer Array radio telescope, the largest in the world, to be built in two mega-installations: one in South Africa and the other in Australia.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

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