NASA this week revealed that astronomers have discovered a mysterious object that acts like a strobe light. The object, named LRLL 54361, releases a flash of light every 25.34 days. Though other objects in the universe have been observed with similar patterns, this one is the most powerful yet seen.
In a new paper published recently in the journal Nature, astronomers have proposed that the strobe effect is caused by interactions between two very young stars (protostars) that orbit each other (binary star). As material is dumped into the growing binary star, they believe that the flashes are caused by a blast of radiation unleashed when the stars closely approach each other in their orbits. Such an event, known as a pulsed accretion, has been observed before, but never with such regularity or in a system so young. The binary star is estimated to be no more than a few hundred thousand years old.
“This protostar has such large brightness variations with a precise period that it is very difficult to explain,” said James Muzerolle, co-author of the paper and a researcher at the Space Telescope Science Institute.
LRLL 54361 is located 950 light-years from Earth in a star-forming region named IC 348. The discovery of its strobe-like property was made using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, and astronomers used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to confirm the observations and reveal the structure of the system.
Though the gas and dust surrounding the system prevents it from being observed directly, the Hubble was able to detect two “cavaties” in the material on opposite sides of a central dust disc. Astronomers believe the cavities were created by an outflow from near the binary star.
(Image courtesy NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech/STScI/NOAO/University of Arizona/ Max Planck Institute for Astronomy/University of Massachusetts, Amherst)