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Radio outbursts near center of Milky Way baffle astronomers

Astronomers have discovered a repeating radio outbursts near center of Milky Way that does not match any previously known phenomenon.

According to a new paper accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal and posted on the preprint server arXiv, the energy source is extremely finicky, appearing bright in the radio spectrum for weeks at a time and then completely vanishing within a day. This behavior doesn’t quite fit the profile of any known type of celestial body, the researchers wrote in their study, and thus may represent “a new class of objects being discovered through radio imaging.”

The radio source — known as ASKAP J173608.2−321635 — was detected with the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope, situated in the remote Australian outback. In an ASKAP survey taken between April 2019 and August 2020, the strange signal appeared 13 times, never lasting in the sky for more than a few weeks, the researchers wrote. This radio source is highly variable, appearing and disappearing with no predictable schedule, and doesn’t seem to appear in any other radio telescope data prior to the ASKAP survey.

The object is even more unique in that it apparently has not been emitting any energy in any other wavelengths, including optical, infrared, or X-rays, something that such repeating outbursts usually do. So far about four such objects have been seen near the galactic center, though this new object’s behavior is not quite the same as the other three.

This is not a signal from alien life. Its energy and nature clearly makes it some form of astronomical object, though what that object is remains unknown. That such objects have so far only been detected near the center of the galaxy, where the environment is especially strange because of the presence of the supermassive black hole dubbed Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star), suggests we really do not understand the astronomical possibilities in such regions.


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  • Lee Stevenson

    A very small, but annoying to me point, quote “The object is even more unique”

    Unique is unique. There are no variables. Nothing can be more unique than unique. It is uniquely unique.

    Sorry to be “that guy” , but this misuse of the word “unique” annoys me.

  • Col Beausabre

    Lee, Scond the motion! “Unique” is singular, the one and only.

  • My Mom made the same point as Lee Stevenson and the COL. It made a lasting impression. Yes, unique is one and only. Not one of a kind, because if you only have ‘one’, you can’t have a ‘kind’.

  • When I read the headline, my first question was, if we would pass these outbursts through an AM detector, would we hear the voice of Wolfman Jack and/or the call letters “XERF”?

    Anywhere, y’all,
    everywhere, y’all,
    I heard it, I heard it,
    I heard it on the X.

  • Steve Richter

    The Milky Way is 13.5 billion years old The Earth and its solar system is 4.5 billion years old. Meaning there are much older solar systems in the Milky Way than that of our Sun. Are those older solar system evenly distributed in our Galaxy? Or clustered closer to the center, maybe? I know Bob said this is not a sign of alien life. But, would it be factual to say that the closer to the center of a galaxy, the more ancient the solar systems and the more likely there is the chance of intelligent and advanced life?

  • wayne

    Ref- “…would it be factual to say that the closer to the center of a galaxy, the more ancient the solar systems….”

    Not necessarily–it is assumed that the first generation(s) of stars to form tended to be massive and their lifespans were in the hundreds of millions of years. That would place an upper limit on the time available for the solar systems for those stars, to foster ‘life’ of some sort.
    Our Sun, in contrast, should continue for another 5 billion+ years before it enters the red-giant phase.
    Tangential factoid– for our galaxy, there is a star ‘about every 4 light years,’ on average.

    –fascinating question! I’d like to hear from someone with more knowledge than I, on this one.

  • Steve Richter: The center of the galaxy might have older material, but it is also a much more hostile environment for the development of life. If any intelligent species formed there, say 10 billion years ago, that civilization was probably forced to move itself outward to survive.

    The key for creating life on a planet appears to require the star to travel in relatively benign environments for long periods, as the Sun apparently has been doing. Less radiation, fewer supernovae, gamma ray bursts, and other nearby radiation events to kill things.

    Thus, the spiral arms, or even the gaps between them, might be more likely sites to search for alien life.

  • Steve Richter

    would be incredible to live in a solar system where other solar systems are relatively close by. Could a cluster of solar systems provide protection to its members against outside radiation bursts? Or on a planet with a stronger magnetic field than that of earth, does radiation protection increase geometrically? And do solar systems closer to the center of a galaxy have more planets, increasing the chance of an Earth like planet? Maybe there is more interstellar gas and dust closer to the galaxy center, which would absorb and deflect harmful radiation.

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