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Mysterious object detected in our galactic backyard

A research team led by the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) has recently detected an extremely unusual object located not very far away in space. This mysterious object, which is unlike anything astronomers have seen before, spins around in space and releases a giant burst of energy or beam of radiation three times per hour.

The discovery was made using the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope in outback Western Australia.

“This object was appearing and disappearing over a few hours during our observations,” said Dr.  Natasha Hurley-Walker, an astrophysicist at ICRAR. “That was completely unexpected. It was kind of spooky for an astronomer because there’s nothing known in the sky that does that. And it’s really quite close to us – about 4,000 lightyears away. It’s in our galactic backyard.”

Astronomical objects that turn on and off in the Universe, called “transients” are not new to astronomers. According to study co-author Dr. Gemma Anderson, another astrophysicist at ICRAR, when studying transients, you’re watching the death of a massive star or the activity of the remnants it leaves behind. 

While “slow transients” like supernovas might appear over the course of a few days and disappear in a few months, “fast transients” such as pulsars flash on and off within seconds or even milliseconds.

However, finding a transient that turns on for a full minute three times every hour is unprecedented. The scientists think the mysterious object could be a neutron star or a white dwarf with an ultra-powerful magnetic field. It is smaller than our Sun, but extremely bright, and emits highly polarized radio waves, a feature which suggests that it has an extremely strong magnetic field.

According to Dr. Hurley-Walker, this newly discovered transient matched a predicted astrophysical object called an “ultra-long period magnetar.” 

“It’s a type of slowly spinning neutron star that has been predicted to exist theoretically,” she explained. “But nobody expected to directly detect one like this because we didn’t expect them to be so bright. Somehow it’s converting magnetic energy to radio waves much more effectively than anything we’ve seen before.”

Further observations are needed to clarify whether this object is an isolated star or part of a larger population of neutron stars that was not noticed before. 

The study is published in the journal Nature.   

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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