Two bright X-ray flare-ups were detected in 2003 and 2007 coming from within a distant galaxy called NGC 4697. The flares were completely anomalous and astronomers could not place them within any existing classification of cosmic phenomenon. However, astronomers were unable to reach any further conclusions before the flares stopped appearing for seven years. Now, NASA scientists have detected what appears to be the same phenomenon coming from a separate pair of galaxies and believe they could be witnessing a completely new type of “explosive event” or object in space.

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NASA images of one of the X-ray flare-ups, seen here in a time lapse, and the galaxy from which they emanate.

According to a NASA press release about the phenomenon, the Chandra X-ray Observatory has detected powerful X-ray bursts which can increase in intensity of up to 100 times brighter than their original luminosity in less than a minute and often continue to rise and fall in explosive flare-ups for periods of up to an hour. The sheer power of these bursts is unlike any previously known x-ray bursts.

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These x-ray bursts are thought to represent a completely new type of cosmic object.

In the release, lead researcher Jimmy Irwin told that these phenomena are unlike anything previously recorded:

We’ve never seen anything like this. Astronomers have seen many different objects that flare up, but these may be examples of an entirely new phenomenon.

There is a broad category of cosmic phenomena known as ultraluminous X-ray sources (ULXs) which likewise explode with similar powerful bursts of X-ray radiation sent hurtling throughout the cosmos. However, according to the researchers’ recent publication in Nature, these new bursts last for much longer than known X-ray bursts and are found in older galaxies which are not known to contain the usual sources of ULX bursts:

When not flaring, the sources appear to be normal accreting neutron-star or black-hole X-ray binaries, but they are located in old stellar populations, unlike the magnetars, anomalous X-ray pulsars or soft γ repeaters that have repetitive flares of similar luminosities.

Thus, while not completely unprecedented, many of the circumstances surrounding the bursts do not fit with current astronomical models and theories about such ultraluminous X-ray sources.

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A leading theory is that the X-ray bursts could be the death rattles of neutron stars being destroyed by black holes.

A current hypothesis is that the bursts might be caused by the violent effects of black holes ripping apart neutron stars, magnetars, or other matter, since somewhat similar phenomena have been previously observed. However, astronomers around the world remain puzzled about the cause of the unexplained bursts. Me, I’m betting on the post-digestion burps of Galactus, Eater of Worlds.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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