It’s always thoughtful of the universe to remind us that, despite our earthly problems and concerns that seem so very important, it can just end us, instantly in a flash of cosmic fire. Astronomers at the Keck Observatory, located on the dormant volcano Mauna Kea in Hawaii, have recently observed a massive explosion 100 times brighter than a supernova ripping through a neighboring galaxy—and they have no idea what caused it.
The event—or object—is referred to as “The Cow,” which seems a distinctly boring name for a violent, galaxy destroying explosion of unknown origin. It was detected as far brighter than an average supernova, and moving at an anomalously fast speed. The team of astronomers working the ATLAS telescope at the Keck Observatory reported the event in the Astronomer’s Telegram, where it sparked international curiosity and where the automated naming and cataloging system of the Telegram listed the report as “AT2018cow.” This is why we shouldn’t let computers name things.
While the brightness of the explosion is unusual, the speed at which it reached peak brightness is even more strange. Usually, large deep space explosions take weeks to reach their maximum brightness. The cow reached its peak brightness in two days. Scientists say that the explosion is made up of high-energy particles traveling at a rate of 12,000 miles per second and has a temperature of 16,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Speaking to New Scientist, Dr Kate McGuire of the ATLAS team, described the deep space explosion:
“It really just appeared out of nowhere. There are other objects that have been discovered that are as fast, but the fastness and the brightness, that’s quite unusual. There hasn’t really been another object like this.”
Initially, the explosion was thought to have occurred in our own galaxy. Due to the incredible brightness of the exploding cow, astronomers assumed that it was far closer than it actually is. A team of Chinese astronomers who trained their telescopes at the event calculated that “The Cow” is actually a whopping 200-million light years away, which would put it in a different galaxy entirely. So, if this thing keeps going, we’ll be alright for a good while. There’s a lot things you can do with 200 million years.
Scientists don’t have any idea what caused this event, however. According to Dr McGuire:
“We’re not sure yet what it is, but the normal powering mechanism for a supernova is radioactive decay of nickel, and this event is too bright and too fast for that.”
The event currently has 18 telescopes from around the world pointed at it, which is the largest number of concurrent observations of any celestial event reported to the Astronomer’s Telegram, according to the site’s editor-in-chief. Scientists say that they should have more information about the cosmic cow in the next few days. If you never hear about it again, that’s probably the time to start worrying.