Hubble Finds a Mystery Object

Don't get the idea that we've found every kind of astronomical object there is in the universe. In a paper to appear in the Astrophysical Journal, astronomers working on the Supernova Cosmology Project report finding a new kind of something that they cannot make any sense of.

What was it?
Now you don't see it, now you do. Something in Bootes truly in the middle of nowhere — apparently not even in a galaxy — brightened by at least 120 times during more than three months and then faded away. Its spectrum was like nothing ever seen, write the discoverers, with "five broad absorption bands between 4100 and 6500 Angstroms and a mostly featureless continuum longward of 6500 Angstroms." Even the cause of the spectral features is unknown.
K. Barbary and others
The project used the Hubble Space Telescope to monitor very distant galaxy clusters for supernovae. On February 21, 2006, in the direction of a far-away cluster in Bootes named CL 1432.5+3332.8 (redshift 1.112, light travel time 8.2 billion years), Hubble began seeing something brighten. It continued brightening for about 100 days and peaked at 21st magnitude in two near-infrared colors. It then faded away over a similar timescale, until nothing was left in view down to 26th magnitude. The object brightened and faded by a factor of at least 120, maybe more.

The mystery object did not behave like any known kind of supernova. It is not even in any detectable galaxy. "The shape of the light curve is inconsistent with microlensing," say the researchers. They recorded three spectra of it — and its spectrum, they write, "in addition to being inconsistent with all known supernova types, is not matched to any spectrum in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey database" of vast numbers of objects. "We suggest that the transient may be one of a new class."

What's its distance? That would certainly be a first step to figuring it out, but only the broadest constraints can be put on its distance. Its lack of parallax motion means that it can't be closer than about 130 light-years, and a lack of cosmic hydrogen absorption in its spectrum means that it can't be farther than 11 billion light-years (when "distance" is defined by light travel time). That leaves a lot of leeway.

Here is the group's paper with all the details. The lead author is Kyle Barbary (University of California at Berkeley).

Any ideas? Put 'em in the comments below! (Please read the paper first, and post ideas that fit the observations.)

62 thoughts on “Hubble Finds a Mystery Object

  1. Pete

    Perhaps the universe is immensely larger than we know and where we were looking was toward the center of the universe. We know that galaxies revolve around a central object, possible a black hole. The gravitational forces will eventually pull all the objects into its center. As the planets and stars are consumed by the center object it grows larger and more denser. We know that even light cannot escape but maybe a black hole can get so big and so dense that even its own gravitational forces gets pull back in and the result is a mega flash/implosion. What this object may have been is the extreme end of how far light does travel.

    An example of what I mean is if you lite a firecracker and were 3 feet away you could see the flash of the explosion. The further away you are the less light you would see.

    Light is concentrated energy. The further it travel the more is dispenses over a broader area. Eventually it reaches a point where it no longer has the ability to be seen. In the fire cracker analogy the light seen from 2 feet away last a fraction of a second. At further distances the light last even less.

    If this were the case of a black hole or super nova larger than anything we can imagine than the universe would have to be immensely larger than we know.

    I have to stop now..all this thinking is hurting my head…

  2. eKim

    I read the paper, and while I don’t have any insight as to what this object might be, I couldn’t help but chuckle after I finished when I thought the conclusion could have been condensed to the simple statement “After considering all of the above, we still don’t have any idea what this thing is, but at least we tried really hard.”

  3. Dr. Gottfried Beyvers

    I don’t know what that object might be, but I do know that you gave the wrong distance of the cluster CL 1432.5+3332.8 ! Its redshift is 1.112; the cosmology calculators then tell us that its proper distance is now 11.7 billion lightyears and that the distance at emission was 5.54 billion lightyears. The number you report (8.2 billion) is the light travel TIME! S&T has had a good record of giving correct cosmological distances, please do continue that. Light travel time multiplied by the speed of light is NO useful distance parameter.Thank you!

    I’ve edited the text to clarify that the “distance” is given as the light travel time. This is widely used, actually, since this version of cosmological “distance” says the most useful things about what we are actually viewing — not what we _would_ see if we had a God’s-eye view and could see “now” at infinite speed, Einstein be damned. Nor what we would see if we traveled back in time and looked at infinite speed from then.

    Anyway, thanks for the clarification.

    Alan MacRobert

  4. Dick Jacobson

    The symmetrical increase and decrease in brightness suggests to me that we’re seeing a beam of light sweeping past the earth, not a source that grew intrinsically brighter and fainter. What could create a narrow beam of light? The obvious answer is a black hole accretion disk. Maybe the accretion disk breaks up into a series of discrete rings (like the many resonances in Saturn’s rings, possibly caused by a companion star.) If each ring beamed radiation at us at a discrete wavelength band, the strange, nearly periodic absorption (emission?) features could be explained. If we could resolve it, we would see a series of rainbow colored dots to one side of the black hole.

    What about ET? If two civilizations set up a communications beam between their stars, the beam would slowly sweep acroll the universe as they orbited the center of their galaxy. Of course, with today’s technology we would expect a narrowband laser beam, not the wide spectrum observed, but who knows what future technology will bring? Maybe the light is a power transmission beam or photon rocket exhaust, or a physics experiment, etc. etc.

  5. Dick Jacobson

    The symmetrical rise and fall in brightness suggests that we saw a beam of light that swept past Earth. What could create a narrow beam? The obvious answer is a black hole accretion disk. Instead of seeing the polar jet, maybe we saw light emitted from the equator. If the disk was broken into rings (perhaps by orbital resonances from a companion star), each ring would orbit at a different velocity. Light emitted would be blue-shifted by a different amount from each ring, explaining the strange pattern of absorption (emmision?) bands. If we could resolve it, we would see a series of rainbow colored dots to one side of the black hole.

  6. Tom Buchanan

    I read the paper and examined the spectrum. Five absorption lines were found, two of which were tentatively identified as hydrogen and one as sodium. The two remaining mystery lines are at 5360 and 6330 angstroms. I suggest that the 6330 line is Fe X, which shows up in the flash spectrum of a total solar eclipse at 6374 angstroms. The value 6374 appears to fit the trough in the spectrum better than the 6330 value marked on the chart. Perhaps the 5360 result is caused by some other ionized atoms. I examined all flash spectra I have, including three I took, and those published in S & T (October 1973, p. 221; and August 1970, p. 79). I could find no trace of any unusual line at 5360. The apparent absence of the hydrogen-alpha line might be because the absorption cancels out the emission, especially in a spectrum of low resolution. This situation occurs in some stars.

  7. John

    I’m a beginner (at 58, no less), but I remember reading a theory that says our universe is one universe basically floating in a ‘sea’ of universes. If so, what if the light Hubbell was seeing was from an extremely rare ‘bump’ with another universe, maybe having the effect of briefly tranfering light waves to our universe? I said I was a beginner. Take it easy on me.

  8. Wallace B. Binghamton, Capt., USNR

    There’s no mystery as to what Hubble has found. It’s McHale and that band of pirates of his!!! I knew they were up to no good! And that nitwit Ensign Parker! I’ll have them all court-martialed for perpetrating a hoax!!!

  9. Jolyon Johnson

    It’s an Oort Cloud object that was either impacted or experienced a serious out gassing event like Comet Holmes. Check out the amount of brightening and the time scale. An impact would probably suggest a much fast brightening so I’d say out gassing.

  10. Galactus

    Given the lack of progenitor star, or lack of obvious or apparent extragalactic host system in the immediate vicinity, and given the unusual nature of the spectral observations regarding the ‘mystery object,’ would it be possible that the object is a small, failed black hole? If the singularity that comprised a very small black hole was to experience some kind of disruption in the gravity filed which holds it together and maintains the black hole’s stability, would the strong gravitational force then rip the singularity apart, causing an apparent SN where one would not otherwise be expected? Also given the nature of the material composition of any given black hole singularity, would that not also account for spectral fluctuations (due to the vast array of elements and compounds that a black hole may aggregate over time) were the singularity to break free from the confines of its own strong gravitational force? Are there any known examples of black holes reaching a state of critical mass, where the force of their rotational mass exceeds the force of their gravity field, thus inducing a violent explosion that would rip the singularity apart, spreading its previously ultra-dense matter into a cloud of less dense base material?

  11. Jono

    I wonder if dark stuff is involved?

    We can’t see any galaxies around the location – but then again we can’t see dark matter, although it makes up 90% of matter. There’s a lot of dark stuff, then, out there, that we simply can not see.
    Another thought is that about the time of the ‘explosion’ (if calculations are reasonably accurate), it was also the time that dark energy started to become the dominant force in the universe.

    Or am i just stabbing in the dark here? (sorry)

  12. Daisy Duke

    I agree with Fizz Bang. If the discoverers don’t think that it is anything they have ever seen before, then it probably isn’t a natural occurrence. Therefore it is logical that some type of life-form caused or created it.

  13. Alan C

    The light curve strongly suggests gravitational lensing, while the broad absorption bands suggest a rapidly rotating cloud of gas. Perhaps there is a black hole or other dense object which lenses the light from a star or galaxy, and this has an accretion disk of gas and dust which produces the absorption bands. I don’t know if this model can be made to fit all of the more subtle features of the observations but I think it might explain the gross features. If this is correct then it is not actually a new class of object at all.

  14. Barak

    Possibly ignition of a dark body or mass of exotic material..or a black hole walks into a bar and see’s a black hole sitting at the bar having a drink. The black hole goes up to the black hole at the bar and asks if it would like to dance…….and they do,,and thats what you see…..umm, i dunno

  15. Mike

    Blah blah blah, its this, its that. I’ve been tracking this story through all the blogs and its funny to see how something that could be a tiny discrepancy in data explodes into theories of black holes and dark matter. Remember occams razor, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, which is more plausible? Problem with the lens where a speck of dust has trailed in front of it and caused some effect or another universe bumping into ours and causing a burst of light?

  16. H

    This is a bit of an odd thought about the nature of a Rosenbridge event but hear me out…

    Lets say that the rate of Dark Matter defines the rate of effective gravity in a given point and that the rate of Dark Matter is relative to a density of free acting boson particles defining atomic material in a persistent rate of exchange. The active rate of this dark matter is then concerned with the density interaction of these boson particles in conjunction with the rate of energy. The rate of energy in turn stimulating the activity of collision promoting the growth of dark matter in a given area influences the given rate of gravitational force.

    Lets say an event occurred at a point in space that triggered a collapsing sequence of curved particle collisions, resulting from something in the nature of a gamma burst. In turn the rapid expansion of energy and collision of hydrogen particles creates a chain reaction of dark matter. The sequence of the event series creates an unsustainable gravitational event that provokes a hyper acceleration of light. While the speed of light is finite the rate of time between two points in an accelerated gravitational density may not be, thus creating an Einstein Rosenbridge. What we observed was the duration of the event and the travel of accelerated light between two points prior to the close, resulting in a gap of visibility.


  17. The cydonian knight

    This light source is so far it might have taken some millions to billions of years to get here. It probably was a new rare super novae of a new type of star or just a regular comet making a routine flyby. Is nasa sure it wasnt a spacecraft of some sort, they should study it visually and with radio telescopes. Has this object appeared on google sky?

  18. Ben Kenobi

    I felt a great disturbance in the Force…as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.

  19. JS

    After much consideration, I believe that this light has too precise of a pattern to be coicidence.

    Therefere, I believe that this was a light beacon set off by another sentient species. Obviously this species has yet to master cross-universe travel. However, at a relatively reduced level of sophistication (yet still more sophisticated than us!), a giant flash of energy that is mathematically different than the known light spectrum is an ingenous way to prove that this is a technological, rather than natural, phenomenon.

    Could it be that this light phenomena had encoded mathematics or language within it? Is it not possible, even if it is not probable, that these beings sent a light signal? Is is not plausible that the main hope of all sentient beings, on this planet and others, all have the same basic desire: for others to know and validate that they exist?

    Thus, I believe that this was not meant to be a two-way communication, but rather a signal that simply states, “We’re here. Thought you should know. And if you’re able to travel to where this light source came, we left directions encoded for you. See you then!”

    Didn’t we do the same thing on Voyager 2’s Golden Record?

  20. Jono

    Having realized they could let other possible alien races know of their existence by blowing themselves sky-high with a particular wavelength seemed so appealing to the advanced species, they forgot to see one rather considerable drawback to their plan.

  21. alan

    perhaps a super giant shock wave coalescing an interstellar cloud into a massive type “o” star that had an unstable hydrostatic equilibrium and also in a binary relationship that led to a controlled decrease in mass of the parent star thus preventing a supernovae. the resulting decrease at the great distance reduced the luminosity to undetectible levels

  22. Fred Little

    The space ship was half the size of earth with a working staff of 6 billion.

    It was during a local holiday 3,427 light years ago and away. While the chef was preparing to feed the staff, he spilled grease into a waste gutter pipe that had developed a crack just over the fusion reactor core. The result is what you saw.

    They never knew what hit ’em.

  23. Bill Redmann

    The spectra in its almost periodic region (esp 4320-5890Å) resembles that of polarized light passing through a birefringent material and then an analyzer.

    Are the spectrometers of Subaru FOCAS, VLT FORS2, and Keck LRIS substantially devoid of polarization effects? How unusual are substantial polarization effects in distant astronomical objects? Do the slits and gratings of spectrometers of significant observatories share a common axis (i.e., would their polarization axes have been substantially the same)?

  24. Oliver K. Manuel

    Let me repeat: Neutron-Repulsion is a more powerful source of nuclear energy than Hydrogen-Fusion. Hydrogen-Fusion is a more powerful source of nuclear energy than Nuclear-Fission [“Neutron repulsion confirmed as energy source”, J. Fusion Energy 20, 197-201 (2003)].

    Violent, energetic events in the universe will always be mysterious to those who do not use Einstein’s equation (E = mc^2) and the mass/energy relationships in the 3,000 data points that describe every atom in the visible universe to consider all sources of nuclear energy that might produce these cosmic events. See:
    Oliver K. Manuel;

  25. Jim Anderson

    I find it interesting that everyone that posts about this ‘light’ has some form of an answer. It is also interesting that no one knows exactly what it is. Could it be possible that we do not know yet everything thing there is to know about the universe? It is quite evident that we don’t. For some, this is the continuation of an event that started billions of years ago, and for others, it is the handiwork of a Creator. The heavens declare HIS creation

  26. Watsonian

    I was told several centuries ago, that this anomaly was simply a quantum reflection of a “significant event” at CERN’s LHC. (An event which has yet to occur in our space/time.) I was also told that, in the year 2048, we would create a similar event that would manifest over 4000 years in “our past”, and become known as the star of Bethlehem. It would not be until the year 2112, in earth’s history, that humanity would realize that scientific theories of evolution and religious theories of creation were not mutually exclusive. There was indeed a “God” that existed outside of space and time. Sir Edmond John discovered the unifying theory that proved God’s existence, and that this “God” had created the heavens and the earth. The mechanism used was a process we, today, would call evolution, though that term lacks much of the true understanding. Rather than taking seven days, the process the God set in motion actually took (to “It”) 9 days, and 12.314159 billion years from our relative perspective (both the creationist and evolutionist camps forgot, in their calculations, to carry the imaginary one)… but, you know with God, 7 seconds, 7 million years, what’s the difference when you’re outside of space time? Unfortunately, most of the comfort that came to humanity from this “revelation of John’s”, was doused when it became obvious that, though a “God” did indeed create this universe, “It” did not factor “concern for individuals” into the great experiment. Turns out, we’re all just particles in an electron cloud… (so bond while you can.)

  27. Mike

    What might have happended was some light was reflecting off of the Solar Panels on the roof of Al Gores house and bouncing out into space and then getting reflected back.
    And of course as Al Gore is involved both the lightwaves and the facts would be distorted.

  28. Jono

    Whenever something unexplained happens, the faithful jump to explain it by not explaining it beyond, ‘oh, God did it’. What sort of theory is that? Had those types got their way in the past, there would not be Astronomy today!
    I am not saying God exists or not – but if it’s going to be a respectable scientific theory then it should try and stand up using scientific rigour. Which I have yet to see.
    It is true we don’t know everything about the Universe (of course!). And that is amazing. We never will. Amazing!
    But some of us are trying to learn about it. Even more amazing.

  29. Robert Dorman

    IMO, It’s a rotating prism; a chunk of ice-like material that is refracting the light from another star, and the Hubble is only receiving a small portion of that refracted spectrum due to the distance involved. The rotation may also be doppler shifting the spectra to some small degree.I would look for some periodicity in its observation. It’s probably slowly tumbling, and could return to the same aspect with the star it is refracting within 3-4 months, if just rotating, or a few years if tumbling and wobbling.

  30. John

    Perhaps it was a stellar outburst that collided with a roughly spherical shell remnent (dia ~35 kAU). A distant directional outburst (GRB or other jet off-axis to Earth) could explain why no related source was detected. The higher energy would be absorbed and re-emitted at lower wavelengths in all directions. The spectra tells us about the composition of the remnent.

  31. Getiren Erdem

    i am a beginner and i eventually don’t know all expressions to make my thoughts clear because my English is not the best but i will try
    maybe is was something like a mirror effect like that: somewhere else is an rotating neutron or proton star that spreads some kind of wave along its axes (gamma or beta waves) one of that rays hits an planet or an asteroid of some sorts and it begins an reaction an it glows something like the tscherenkow light effect
    the 100 days could be explained trough the rotating of the neutron or proton star and that it dosn`t happens every day could be explained through the possibility the light that would be created would possibly be very irritating just like with this objekt

  32. Nick

    Tom B.’s post makes me wonder if anyone has corrected the observed spectra to a pseudo-non-relativistic frame by normalizing out the redshift effects from the assumed distance. Might make interpretation a bit easier.

    I suspect that this might turn out to be some unusual but not unexpected event such as the absorption of a massive star into a galactic core-mass black hole. Tidal distruption of such a large object prior to crossing the event horizon might well produce a radiation spike from stellar core dissolution as well as secondary fusion events as compression of the material occurs prior to infall; the intensity should fall off as the mass is absorbed & the resultant infall disk mass decreases.

  33. Sam B.

    I have a few ideas as to the source:
    1. Non-source. This is an intergalactic transmission. The spectrum does not look natural. The almost sinusoidal curve, with some amount of “noise” makes me think that this is not a natural phenomena. Has anybody tried to study the data as a transmission? Can we track where the transmission is going to? Obviously it flew through the Milky Way, but can we track it’s path? (I don’t even know if this is possible, since we would likely have to have telescopes scattered throughout the solar system to determine the actual path). By path, I mean that is it possible this is some kind of super-advanced inter-galactic laser, with a beam of light rather than a normal radiative source? The strange absorbtion spectra made me think of a band-gap laser, except with some sort of additional quasi-black-body radiation.

    2. This could be a collapsed Galaxy, a gigantic black hole, rotating and shooting out radiation (due to the particle-antiparticle pairs causing phantom radiation). It just happened to line up with our planet for 100 days while rotating.

  34. Sam B.

    3. Strange as it may sound, this could be some strange after effect of CERN. An experiment shoots particles back in time with a strange spectrum, such as that observed. To maintain causality, the particles appear 11 billion light years away, 11 billion years ago, heading towards us. (just outside of the lightcone). Due to the time-energy uncertainty principal + various gravitational masses between here and there, the 100 days is off a bit from when the experiment starts.

    4. This casts more doubt in my mind as to the “theory” of dark matter. The truth is, the halo of “dark matter” doesn’t explain the increased rotational speed (and hence higher gravity) at the edge of a galaxy. If this is truly an extra-galactic source, since no “galaxy” is near it, under the bozo dark matter theory, it would be orphaned matter not surrounded by dark matter. A better explaination of the galactic speed problem is either that our theory of gravity is completely wrong, or Galaxies are actually a “macro-particle” – eg, they are the carriers of some sort of inter-galactic force – instead of collapsing down in size upon the big bang, galaxies actually enlarged as massive carriers of some unknown force.

    5. Can’t somebody use (reverse) pertibation theory with the strange spectral discharge to estimate the orbital structure of the matter that caused the strange band gaps? I mean, if we start with the absorbtion energy, is it possible to derive the orbital structure? It would seem to be a yet unknown orbital structure, perhaps created with unknown particles (think extra strangelets in the nucleus).

  35. Bobby Jones

    Think of the universe as a bubble within a buuble. That light represents a doorway brief as it may have been from the “Outside” of our universe. The possible visitors, hard to say. The reason, to examine the cluster or it is a common gateway to our universe that might open frequently and I hope our scientific community studies this closely.

  36. Adrian Pellegrini

    An intelligent civilization using a kind of infra-red positional system, as a torch in the night of his neighbors. Its impossible?
    So far and so distant, many time in Eternity!
    Adrian Pellegrini del Riego

  37. Ed

    Has anybody checked the event for possible data information? Maybe this is a “flare” sent up, intentionally or otherwise, from an old civilaization! Contact SETI!

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