M82 – The Unknown Object

Twelve million light-years away from Earth exists the Cigar Galaxy, known as Messier 82. This brilliant starburst galaxy lives in the Ursa Major (Large Bear) constellation. Messier 82 shines bright amongst the entire universe, five times brighter than our Milky Way. This isolated conglomerate has burned bright in the retinas of our ancestors and has been the basis for countless tales. But on April of 2010 something strange happened. Something that once again has stirred up our imaginations.

Astronomers in Manchester discovered a series of unidentified radio waves emanating from an unknown object inside of Messier 82. From the Wikipedia entry we learn the following:

Unknown Object

In April 2010, radio astronomers working at the Jodrell Bank Observatory of the University of Manchester reported an unknown object in M82. The object has started sending out radio waves, and the emission does not look like anything seen anywhere in the universe before.There have been several theories about the nature of this unknown object, but currently no theory entirely fits the observed data. It has been suggested that the object could be a “micro quasar”, having very high radio luminosity yet low X-ray luminosity, and being fairly stable.However, all known microquasars produce large quantities of X-rays, whereas the object’s X-ray flux is below the measurement threshold.  The object is located at several arcseconds from the center of M82. It has an apparent superluminal motion of 4 times the speed of light relative to the galaxy center.

The Jodrell Bank Observatory released the following image. The unidentified object in Messier 82 appears like a bleep in a radar:


Radio image of M82 made with the MERLIN and VLA telescopes. The resolution of the main image (the size of a pixel) is 100 milliarcseconds, the diameter of a 1 pence coin when viewed at a distance of 40 km. Insets show MERLIN images from April 25th and May 3rd 2009 demonstrating the sudden appearance of the mystery object. The resolution of these inset images is 40 mas. All images are at a frequency of 5 GHz. Credit: T.W.B. Muxlow, University of Manchester.

“We don’t know what it is,” says co-discoverer Tom Muxlow of Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics near Macclesfield, UK. The thing appeared in May last year, while Muxlow and his colleagues were monitoring an unrelated stellar explosion in M82 using the MERLIN network of radio telescopes in the UK. A bright spot of radio emission emerged over only a few days, quite rapidly in astronomical terms. Since then it has done very little except baffle astrophysicists.

It certainly does not fit the pattern of radio emissions from supernovae: they usually get brighter over a few weeks and then fade away over months, with the spectrum of the radiation changing all the while. The new source has hardly changed in brightness over the course of a year, and its spectrum is steady.
Warp speed

Yet it does seem to be moving – and fast: its apparent sideways velocity is four times the speed of light. Such apparent “superluminal” motion has been seen before in high-speed jets of material squirted out by some black holes. The stuff in these jets is moving towards us at a slight angle and travelling at a fair fraction of the speed of light, and the effects of relativity produce a kind of optical illusion that makes the motion appear superluminal.

Could the object be a black hole? It is not quite in the middle of M82, where astronomers would expect to find the kind of supermassive central black hole that most other galaxies have. Which leaves the possibility that it could be a smaller-scale “microquasar”. A microquasar is formed after a very massive star explodes, leaving behind a black hole around 10 to 20 times the mass of the sun, which then starts feeding on gas from a surviving companion star. Microquasars do emit radio waves – but none seen in our galaxy is as bright as the new source in M82. Microquasars also produce plenty of X-rays, whereas no X-rays have been seen from the mystery object. “So that’s not right either”, Muxlow said.

No one knows for sure what this unidentified object is. What we do know is that it sent out a massive radio signal (wave) for short periods and is traveling inside the Messier 82 galaxy at tremendous speeds. Four times the speed of light from what scientists have deduced. FOUR TIMES THE SPEED OF LIGHT!

It doesn’t take much imagination to picture an alien spacecraft tearing through the highly cluttered galaxy, exploring and sending radio communiques to its cohorts. Or maybe like many speculate, the unknown object is just a new, never-before-seen microquasar in action. Whatever that object is and what that radio signal contained is one of the most recent unknown mysteries.



What is odd about the discovery you have just seen is why the radio signal is constant in luminosity? 

This is very odd, because quasars are basically black holes with an accretion disk that give out burst of radiation, so you would expect the signal to increase in luminosity to a peak then decrease quite quickly. 

I suspect this is a new object that we have no prior understanding of. 

Though to be honest this sort of thing to me screams of intelligence. It would be certainly a good way to send a large wave hello we are here signal, since it does not conform to how normal radio signals perform from known sources. 


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