Story at a glance

  • A new study published this week in the Astrophysical Journal details the discovery of radio waves that appear to be unlike anything the experts have studied before.
  • The radio waves were observed using the ASKAP radio telescope located in the desert of Western Australia.
  • “At first we thought it could be a pulsar — a very dense type of spinning dead star — or else a type of star that emits huge solar flares. But the signals from this new source don’t match what we expect from these types of celestial objects,” Wang said.

An international team of astronomers has detected “unusual signals” coming from the heart of the Milky Way galaxy and suspect a “new class of stellar object” could be the source. 

Objects in the cosmos such as planets, comets, giant clouds of gas and stars have changing magnetic fields and produce radio waves that can be picked up on Earth by large radio telescope arrays positioned all around the planet. 

But a new study published this week in the Astrophysical Journal details the discovery of radio waves that appear to be unlike anything the experts have studied before. 

“At first we thought it could be a pulsar — a very dense type of spinning dead star — or else a type of star that emits huge solar flares. But the signals from this new source don’t match what we expect from these types of celestial objects,” Ziteng Wang, lead author of the study and PhD student at the School of Physics at the University of Sydney, said in a statement


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“The strangest property of this new signal is that it has a very high polarization. This means its light oscillates in only one direction, but that direction rotates with time,” Wang said. 

“The brightness of the object also varies dramatically, by a factor of 100, and the signal switches on and off apparently at random. We’ve never seen anything like it,” he added. 

The radio waves were observed using the ASKAP radio telescope located in the desert of Western Australia, with follow-up observations carried out by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory’s MeerKat telescope. 

Signals from the object, dubbed ASKAP J173608.2-321635 because of its coordinates, were picked up six times over nine months last year. Researchers said they tried to find the object in visual light, but were unsuccessful. 

Astronomers say they plan to keep monitoring the object for clues as to what it could be, and they hope more advanced telescopes set to come online in the coming years can help solve the mystery.


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Published on Oct 13, 2021