A strange signal from deep space has been detected every 22 minutes for over 30 years. Scientists have no idea what’s causing it.

  • A mysterious object spotted in the cosmos broadcasts radio waves to Earth every 22 minutes.
  • The signals from this type of cosmic object usually slow down over time.
  • But this has been sending signals for more than 30 years, and scientists can’t figure out why.

A cosmic object that has been pulsing radio waves towards Earth every 22 minutes for more than 30 years has left scientists baffled.

The object is thought to be a dying star emitting energy from its poles. But it spins too slowly to exist.

“Assuming it’s a magnetar, it shouldn’t be possible for this object to produce radio waves. But we’re seeing them,” Natasha Hurley-Walker, a radio astronomer at Curtin University in Australia who led the research, said in a statement.

A phenomenal cosmic beacon that shouldn’t exist

An animation shows a neutron star, represented as a ball, spinning as it radiates our energy from its poles.  Tangles of orange magnetic fields emerge from one pole and land at another.

An artist’s impression of the dying star, the star is thought to be a magnetar, which is governed by intense magnetic fields, shown here in orange.

ICRAR



This object, which has been given the scientific name of GPM J183910, is notable because it is remarkably slow and remarkably stable.

“Astronomers expect to see some radio signals repeating in space, but they usually turn on and off much more rapidly,” Hurley-Walker told The Conversation.

At the end of their lives, stars can collapse into neutron stars, superdense objects that pack billions of tons of matter into tiny spaces, according to NASA.

Some neutron stars emit brilliant beams of light and energy from their magnetic poles. We detect the signal only as the beam pours down on our planet, similar to the light from a beacon flashing on an offshore boat.

These create repeating signals on Earth that are so coherent that the scientists who first detected them mistakenly thought they might be communications from aliens in space. But since then, they’ve come to understand that they’re the gasps of a dying star that shines in the universe.

This star is crossing the death line

Scientists expect pulsating neutron stars to slow down to a “death line.” This is a theoretical threshold that dictates that stars that are too slow are going to die. This threshold is usually thought to be exceeded when pulses slow to more than a few minutes apart.

But pulses from GPM J183910, the team found, came every 22 minutes. And these could be as long as five minutes each, defying all expectations.

‘The object we discovered is spinning too slowly to produce radio waves,’ said Dr. Hurley-Walker.

It wasn’t the first time a super slow object like this had been sighted.

The same team had previously spotted another slow object that pulsed about every 18 minutes, lasting up to a minute each. The team hypothesized that the beams came from a magnetar, a neutron star with intense magnetic fields.

But GPM J183910 had another science-defying surprise in its pocket.

A dying star that refuses to die

Murchison Widefield Array telescope facilities in the Australian outback

A segment of the Murchison Widefield Array in Western Australia used to pick up the signal from the star.

Pete Wheeler, ICRAR



Looking through the archives, Hurley-Walker said the team discovered the “real surprise” of GPM J183910.

Pulses from this object have been picked up, unnoticed, by observers around the world for years, radiating “like clockwork, every 1,318.1957 seconds, plus or minus a tenth of a millisecond,” according to Hurley-Walker.

This goes against what we know about neutron stars. These should die out in a few months. For example, the 2018 object only shone for a short time, between January and March 2018.

But the first pulse recording of GPM J183910 dates back to 1988 about 33 years ago.

This could mean that the object is a new type of star system altogether.

“This extraordinary object challenges our understanding of neutron stars and magnetars, which are some of the most exotic and extreme objects in the universe,” said Hurley-Walker.

The team will now try to reconcile their observations with what we know about the physics of stars.

“Whatever the mechanism behind this is is extraordinary,” he said.

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