Mystery Bursts of Rays in Space Baffle Scientists
An orbiting observatory has upset existing astronomical theory by detecting violent bursts of gamma rays in space that could not have been produced by any known object or phenomenon in the cosmos.
Astrophysicists, who announced the finding Monday, said the mysterious signals could be coming from “exotic small objects” very near the solar system or from extremely powerful objects lurking at the edges of the universe.
Fleeting but powerful barrages of gamma rays have posed one of the most enduring and unusual mysteries of modern astronomy since they were detected more than two decades ago. But until the new discovery, scientists thought they could explain their origin through known phenomena.
The findings are from NASA’s massive Gamma Ray Observatory (GRO) launched into Earth orbit less than six months ago.
The observations cannot be explained by any existing theory or object, said NASA scientist Gerald Fishman, leader of the team whose instrument made the discovery. The sources “must be a new type of object previously unknown or undetectable” in other wavelengths, he said.
News of the discovery was greeted by scientists outside the GRO team as “astounding” and “mind-blowing.”
Astrophysicists had grown comfortable with the theory that the bursts originated in explosions or “starquakes” on the surfaces of neutron stars within our own Milky Way galaxy. (Neutron stars are ordinary stars that have collapsed, compressing matter with the mass of the sun into an object about the size of a metropolitan area.)