The universe is full of enigma and mysteries. Millions of objects move around undetected. In fact, there's no dearth of such objects lurking in our very own Milky Way galaxy. We know very little of them, yet they continue to impact our lives in a number of ways. While the effort to study these objects continues, astronomers have detected a new object, roughly 3,000-4,000 light-years away, giving out mysterious flashes of light. They suspect that this object could be the elusive “black widow” star, a rapidly spinning pulsar, or neutron star, that thrives by slowly consuming its smaller companion star.
Black widow stars are rare since astronomers have been able to detect only about two dozen of them in the Milky Way. But researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who found this enigmatic object, believe this could be the weirdest and most bizarre black widow pulsars of them all. They have named the newest candidate ZTF J1406+1222.
The researchers said the new candidate has the shortest orbital period yet identified, with the pulsar and companion star circling each other every 62 minutes. The system is unique because it appears to host a third star that orbits around the two inner stars every 10,000 years, they added in a statement on MIT's website.
This three-star system is raising questions about how it would have formed. The MIT researchers have attempted a theory for its origin: they feel the system likely arose from a dense constellation of old stars known as a globular cluster. This particular system may have drifted away from the cluster towards the centre of the Milky Way.
“This system has probably been floating around in the Milky Way for longer than the sun has been around,” said lead researcher and physicist Kevin Burdge from MIT's Department of Physics.
Their study has been published in the journal Nature. It details how the researchers used a new approach to detect this triple-star system. Most black widow binaries are detected through gamma and X-ray radiation emitted by the central pulsar, but MIT researchers use visible light to detect this system.