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The object, called SCP 06F6, was first spotted in the constellation Bootes in February 2006 in a search for supernovae by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Nothing had been seen at its location before it started to brighten, and nothing was spotted after it dimmed. That suggests it is normally too faint to observe and that it brightened by at least 120 times during its firefly-like episode.
Stars are known to brighten dramatically when they explode as supernovae. But supernovae reach their maximum brightness after about 20 days, and this object took a leisurely 100 days to hit its peak.
The object's spectrum is also bizarre. It does not match that of anything seen in the mammoth Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which has mapped more than a quarter of the sky.
The spectrum shows a handful of spectral lines, but when astronomers try to trace any one of them to an element - such as magnesium, the other lines fail to match up with known elements.
"Because we can't see anything we recognize in the spectrum, we can't tell if it's even in the galaxy or in another galaxy," says Kyle Barbary of the University of California, Berkeley, lead author of the new study.
If it's inside the galaxy, it might be a dim stellar ember called a white dwarf. White dwarfs can brighten suddenly when they steal matter from a nearby stellar companion or suck in matter from a disc of debris around them.
But that process of sucking in matter would have to happen in a "strange way" to explain the odd spectrum, Barbary says: "It would still leave something unanswered."
If the object lies outside the galaxy, explaining its provenance is no easier.
When its discovery was first reported in 2006, astronomer Stefan Immler of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, suggested to New Scientist that the object might be a very distant supernova, lying about 12 billion light years away.
Astronomers have discovered a most bizarre celestial object that emitted 40 visible-light flashes before disappearing again. It is most likely to be a missing link in the family of neutron stars, the first case of an object with an amazingly powerful magnetic field that showed some brief, strong visible-light activity.
What do you think accounts for the lack of any other emissions or our inability to find it now? Distance? I would think it would still be an x-ray source.
Originally posted by mopusvindictus
Light takes a long time to travel... so this was
A long Time ago... In a Galaxy Far Far away
It's the Death Star Fragging Alderaan!!!
Who needs Michiu Kaku and Steven Hawkings when you got me?