Something inexplicable has sent signals to Earth since 1988: “Time will tell what they hide”

“Only time will tell what else is hidden in these data, and what observations across many astronomical time scales will reveal,” says an astronomer not involved in the study.

Something inexplicable has been showering the Earth with repetitive radio signals since 1988. This would not be worth noting if the signals did not last between 30 seconds and five minutes over 21-minute periods and a “quasiperiodic substructure”, something never observed in the history of astronomy and does not fit with any theory, model or simulation to date. In fact, right now it is considered impossible within what we know in the world of astrophysics. We simply have no idea what this source that has been active for more than three decades can be.

Now, a study published in the journal Nature tries to resolve these unknowns about this unknown source, which they have named GPMJ1839-10. Unfortunately, the international team of astronomers trying to solve the mystery have failed miserably. They still can’t figure out what GPMJ1839-10 might be, and all theories seem to be deadlocked. According to Victoria M. Kaspi, a professor of physics at McGill University unrelated to the study, “Only time will tell what else is hidden in these data, and what observations across many astronomical time scales will reveal.”

According to the study, the pulses vary in intensity by two orders of magnitude, last between 30 and 300 seconds, and have a quasiperiodic substructure. “Coherent periodic radio emission is usually explained by rotating dipole magnetic fields and pair production mechanisms, but such models do not easily predict radio emission from slowly rotating neutron stars and sustain it for long periods.” , they affirm. The data, they say, puts it beyond “any classical theoretical model that predicts dipole radio emission from an isolated neutron star.”

Para intentar comprender el significado de este descubrimiento, primero debemos entender tres conceptos clave. Primero, los púlsares, que son estrellas de neutrones que giran muy rápido. Una estrella de neutrones es lo que queda después de que una estrella más grande explota y muere. Los púlsares emiten haces de radiación electromagnética. Si estos haces están orientados de tal manera que apuntan hacia la Tierra durante parte del giro del pulsar, los vemos como un pulso de radiación. Imagina un faro que gira, solo que en lugar de luz visible, emite radiación electromagnética.

Then there are fast radio bursts (FRBs): very short, energetic radio flashes that last only a few milliseconds. Scientists aren’t sure what causes them, but we know they are very powerful and come from galaxies far away.

Finally there are magnetars, a type of neutron star with an extremely powerful magnetic field. Magnetars can emit bursts of high-energy radiation, including radio waves.

In the case of GPMJ1839-10, scientists are puzzled because it is emitting radio bursts that last for 21 minutes. This is much longer than the bursts of a pulsar or an FRB, and doesn’t fit with what we know about how these objects work. Furthermore, whether GPMJ1839-10 is a pulsar or a magnetar, it is working in a way that scientists thought was impossible, making this discovery even more intriguing.

The mystery of GPMJ1839-10 adds to other phenomena that have puzzled astronomers in recent times. For example, a team of astronomers detected a repetitive radio signal that led them to a planet similar to ours located 12 light years from Earth. That was the first time that a radio wave detection led us to a planet and not a star.

In another recent study, Dr. Ziggy Pleunis and his team have finally established that the probability that two or more fast radio bursts (FRBs) from a similar location cannot be a coincidence. This discovery may seem obvious but, until then, we had not been able to establish this certainty of a phenomenon that still has an unknown origin.

These discoveries prove once again that the universe remains a great unknown and remind us to be humble about all that we still have to learn about the cosmos. As Carl Sagan said in his great degradations, the universe constantly reminds us that we are only an insignificant piece of a whole that we cannot yet understand. Astronomy, Sagan said, is a naturally humbling science.