The universe is full of riddles and mysteries. Millions of objects move around unnoticed. In fact, there is no shortage of such objects lurking in our own Milky Way galaxy. We know very little about them, but they continue to affect our lives in a number of ways. As efforts to study these objects continue, astronomers have discovered a new object, about 3,000-4,000 light-years away, that emits mysterious flashes of light. They suspect this object could be the elusive “black widow” star, a rapidly spinning pulsar or neutron star, which thrives by slowly consuming its smaller companion star.
Black widow stars are rare, as astronomers have only been able to detect about two dozen of them in the Milky Way. But researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who found this enigmatic object, believe it could be the strangest and most bizarre black widow pulsars of all. They have named the latest candidate ZTF J1406+1222.
The researchers said the new candidate has the shortest orbital period identified to date, with the pulsar and companion star orbiting each other every 62 minutes. The system is unique in that it appears to host a third star that orbits the two innermost stars every 10,000 years, she added in a statement on MIT’s website.
This three-star system raises questions about how it might have originated. The MIT researchers have tried a theory for its origin: They think the system likely formed from a dense constellation of ancient stars known as a globular cluster. This particular system may have drifted away from the cluster toward the center of the Milky Way.
“This system has probably been floating in the Milky Way longer than the sun has been around,” said lead researcher and physicist Kevin Burdge of MIT’s Department of Physics.
Their research is published in the journal Nature. It describes how the researchers used a new approach to detect this triple star system. Most black widow binary stars are detected by gamma and X-rays emitted from the central pulsar, but MIT researchers use visible light to detect this system.