It’s no secret that the cosmos turns out to be incredibly strange, every year astronomers outdo themselves in discovering new objects and bizarre events. From extreme exoplanets to stars with strange fates, solving old mysteries and the beginnings for entirely new ones, here are 10 of the strangest astronomical discoveries that struck scientists’ minds (and ours, too) last year.
1- Most Uninhabited Exoplanet:
K2-141b is a rocky exoplanet similar to our Earth. Astronomers have been assessing weather conditions on this exoplanet. Like Earth, it has liquid oceans. These evaporate into clouds, then fall back as rain after condensation. But we’re not talking about water here – it’s all happening to rock. It’s what falls back to the planet’s surface in the form of rock rain.
Scientists predict that huge areas of K2-141b’s surface will be covered by seas of lava. The proximity of the star makes the planet’s climate hot enough to vaporize rock in the atmosphere. Clouds of silica are carried by the strongest winds to the night side of the planet, where the lava cools and falls as a shower of rock.
So let’s put this exoplanet at the bottom of our list of planets to visit.
2- The planet that never was:
Fomalgaut b was one of the first exoplanets to be discovered, but again this year astronomers failed to discover it again. Turns out it doesn’t exist. A team of scientists who analyzed a decade of Hubble telescope observations found that what was a bright spot in 2004 had completely disappeared by 2014.
Of course, planets can’t just disappear, and the researchers offered a pretty clear explanation: Fomalgauta b never existed. At least as a planet. Computer simulations showed that it was most likely a dense dust cloud formed by the collision of two asteroids or comets, which then dissipated over the course of a decade.
Although it could not have been a planet, the observation of such a random, short-lived cosmic event is very impressive.
3- The star simply disappeared:
It’s not just planets that disappear without a trace – a bright giant star also recently took flight and disappeared completely without a trace.
The object, formerly known as a bright blue variable star, was located in the tiny Kinman galaxy about 75 million light-years away.
At that distance, it had an incredibly large luminosity, about 2.5 million times brighter than the Sun. Until it didn’t.
The star was last seen in 2011, but when astronomers decided to study it again after less than a decade, it simply disappeared. Normally, one would expect such a star to go out with a massive explosion and become another supernova, but this one left astronomers completely confused by its disappearance.
4- A surviving white dwarf:
Some stars have a strange fate. This year, scientists discovered that a white dwarf exploded into a supernova but survived despite everything we know about it.
The imagination paints a very strange picture for us. This star may have a very unusual composition. It has no hydrogen or helium, but it does have carbon, sodium, and aluminum, which are not normally found in white dwarfs. It is quite small, with a mass equal to 40% of the Sun, but it travels through the galaxy at the enormous speed of 900 000 km/h.
The only explanation scientists could come up with was that the star had somehow survived a partial supernova explosion and managed to survive in the process. This had burned some elements in it, causing unexpected changes, reducing its mass and causing the star to fly at incredible speeds.
5- The black hole transforms the star into a planet:
But the most unexpected fate is in store for a star in the galaxy GSN 069. Because of its proximity to a black hole, the star could turn into a Jupiter-like planet in a trillion years.
This bizarre story was discovered when astronomers noticed powerful X-ray bursts occurring every nine hours, like clockwork. Upon closer inspection, they realized that this was a star that had been launched into orbit around a black hole in a spirographic orbit. The explosions were due to material being ripped away from it every time it passed by its hungry host.
6- A colossal cosmic crater:
Black holes are a bit like galactic volcanoes. They sometimes erupt and release enormous amounts of energy, puncturing the surrounding space. This year, radio telescopes and X-ray observers at the center of a galaxy cluster in the constellation Ophiucus discovered one of the largest craters ever created in the Universe. The crater is very large and could contain more than 15 Milky Way-sized galaxies.”
Because of its enormous size, astronomers had initially ruled out the possibility of an explosion, but when it was discovered that the crater was visible in both X-rays and the radio spectrum, any other version could no longer explain its appearance. The amount of energy required to form such a giant intergalactic footprint is unfathomable.
7- Cyclic Radio Bursts :
Rapid Radio Bursts (FRBs) are one of the most fascinating cosmic mysteries of the past few decades, and new clues to solving their mystery were discovered this year.
Most of these signals are one-time events that last only milliseconds, but some have been observed to repeat at random intervals. At least, astronomers thought they were random. In early 2020, astronomers discovered an FRB that had a 16-day cycle, “firing off in bursts” for about four days and then disappearing for twelve days.
A few months later, another study also found a hidden pattern for another known source of radio emissions, which had been closely monitored since 2012 and thought its radio bursts were random. Observations showed that this FRB has a 157-day cycle, is active for 90 days and then goes silent for 67 days. The team of scientists predicted the next active phase of radio bursts to occur in August. And, oh miracle, everything went according to plan.
8- Caught red-handed:
The biggest contribution to solving the mystery of fast radio bursts (FRBs) came from the first detection of this signal from our own galaxy.
Astronomers detected the activity of a magnetar, an extremely dense neutron star with a powerful magnetic field, on April 28. Along with the usual X-rays, this emitted a brilliant burst of radio waves that looks suspiciously like an FRB. Magnets were already high on the list of suspects, and this new observation only strengthened the existing evidence.
9- The most magnetic object :
Another type of neutron star, the pulsar, has also caught the attention of scientists this year. It has the strongest magnetic field we have ever seen in the Universe.
Scientists have calculated that the pulsar’s magnetic field has reached one billion tesla (Tesla). For example: the Sun’s magnetic field is about 0.4 Tesla; Earth’s is a tiny 30 microtesla. The magnetic field of an average white dwarf can reach 100 Tesla, and the strongest magnet ever built in a laboratory on Earth is 1200 Tesla.
Don’t get too close though – the 1 billion Tesla magnetic field of this pulsar will be enough to tear you apart into individual atoms.
10- A new cosmic mystery:
With the issue of fast radio bursts all but closed, we need a new cosmic mystery. And the cosmos, knowing this, immediately provided it. Odd Radio Circles (ORCs) are incomprehensible clusters of radio emissions that appear to be a completely new astronomical object or phenomenon.
So far, only a few ORCs have been detected in radio images. They do not emit optical, infrared, or X-ray signals.
Scientists are not yet able to say how far away they are or what their size is. ORCs could be a few light years from the Milky Way, or they could be millions of light years from our galaxy.
These strange radio circles are probably a completely new astronomical object, although they could be related to something we already know. Either way, it will be interesting to watch the research that emerges over the next few years.