Scientists have discovered a massive spinning object just sitting out there in the universe 4,000 light years from earth, and they have got no idea what it actually is yet.
Of course, there are millions – probably more than that – of things that we don’t know about space, but they’re really stumped by this thing.
The mysterious object was first discovered when a team of Australian researchers observed a huge emission of radio waves that occurred three times each hour.
The person who initially detected it was an undergraduate student – discovering an unexplained phenomenon is a great way to get your astronomy career underway, that’s for sure.
According to astrophysicist Natasha Hurley-Walker, who was leading the team that investigated the student’s discovery, the pulse happens ‘every 18.18 minutes, like clockwork’.
They’ve had their telescope, known as the Murchison Widefield Array, trained on the radio waves for a while now, and while they’ve got theories, they’re still none the wiser as to what is causing them.
There are things out there that are known to turn on and off, such as pulsars, but the regularity of 18 minutes and 18 seconds has never been observed before – that means that they’re open to other ideas.
Hurley-Walker told The Telegraph that finding the thing – whatever it is – is ‘kind of spooky for an astronomer’ because ‘there’s nothing known in the sky that does that’.
In order to ascertain what it is, they’ve been trawling back through years of data and have been able to find out that whatever it is, it’s 4,000 light years away, it’s extremely bright, and has a powerful magnetic field.
Still, there are things that can’t yet be explained.
'If you do all of the mathematics, you find that they shouldn't have enough power to produce these kind of radio waves every 20 minutes,' Hurley-Walker continued. 'It just shouldn't be possible.'
It could be something that has been hypothesised for a while but never observed, like an ‘ultra-long period magnetar’, or it could be a white dwarf that formed after the collapse of a star.
However, on that front, Hurley-Walker said, 'But that's quite unusual as well. We only know of one white dwarf pulsar, and nothing as great as this.'
There’s another possibility though, and one that is probably the most exciting.
Hurley-Walker explained, 'Of course, it could be something that we've never even thought of – it could be some entirely new type of object.'
One thing that they’re relatively clear on is that it’s not aliens, because they’re able to observe the pulses over many different frequencies, which means that it must be a natural phenomenon.
That means they’re left to continue scouring the universe in the hope that they discover other similar events somewhere else.
Hurley-Walker concluded, 'More detections will tell astronomers whether this was a rare one-off event or a vast new population we'd never noticed before.'
Their findings were published in the latest edition of the journal Nature.
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Featured Image Credit: Alamy/Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker