Hello folks! How did October treat you? Well, coming to research in astronomy and physics, October turned out to be quite a happening month with its share of some of the groundbreaking discoveries. From detecting radio signals from the center of the Milky Way to moving a step ahead in our hunt for the fifth fundamental force of nature, here is a list top five discoveries that took place in October 2021.

Radio signals from the center of the Milky Way

In another breakthrough, astronomers have detected weird radio signals coming from the direction of the Milky Way’s center that has baffled everyone. The strange signal is switching on and off randomly. Besides that, the observed radio signal does not fit any of the currently understood patterns of the variable radio sources.

The source started invisibly and seemed extremely quiet. Then suddenly, it became bright, then it faded away, and then again, it reappeared. Moreover, the brightness of the unknown object varied dramatically, almost by a factor of 100. Even the signal switched on and off apparently at random. Apart from these, the new signal had another strange property. It had a very high polarization, which means that the signal oscillates in only one direction, but that direction rotates with time.

Astronomers assume that the source could also be a type of object called a Galactic Center Radio Transient (GCRT), a bursting low-frequency radio source lying in the direction of the galactic center. However, not much is known about them either. So this again adds to the mystery of the new signal’s source.

Because of its coordinates, the mysterious source has been named ASKAP J173608.2-321635. Scientists aim to keep a close eye on the object to look for more clues to solve its mystery. Within the next decade, the transcontinental Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope will come online. SKA will be able to make sensitive maps of the sky every day. It is expected that this telescope will help us solve the mystery of this goofy source and open up new segments of cosmic exploration in the radio spectrum.

WASP-76b is hotter than expected

New studies have revealed that WASP-76b, an exoplanet lying about 640 light-years away from us, is even hotter than previously thought. WASP-76b resembles Jupiter in size and lies so close to its star that it completes its orbit in just 1.8 Earth days. This makes it falls into the category of ‘Hot Jupiters.’

A Hidden Force in Nature, Mysterious Radio Signals, And Other Exciting Discoveries in October. 1
An artist’s impression of WASP-76b | Image: Trurle, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The planet is also tidally locked, which means that it always shows the same face to its star. As a result, the daytime temperatures on this planet can reach more than 2200 degrees Celsius, making it hot enough to vaporize iron during the day. However, new studies made by the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii have hinted at the planet being even more scorching than this.

Researchers looked at the moderate temperature zone of the planet and used a process of transit spectroscopy in which the light of an exoplanet’s star shines through its atmosphere, all the way back to Earth. Analysis of this light helps to make calculations about the planet’s atmosphere at different depths. 

Eventually, the team identified a rare trio of spectral lines in their data of WASP-76b. These readings indicated the presence of ionized calcium in the exoplanet’s atmosphere.  However, it’s difficult for ionized calcium to form in currently known conditions of WASP-76b. This means that the exoplanet either has extreme upper-atmosphere winds, or the atmospheric temperature on the exoplanet is much higher than we previously thought. 

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Another evidence in support of fifth fundamental force of nature

A detailed explanation of the discovery

In March, particle physicists reported tantalizing evidence hinting at a potential new force of nature. Now again, a new result from CERN’s huge particle collider seems to have added further evidence in support of this idea.

The decay mechanism of beauty quarks is strongly influenced by the existence of other fundamental particles or forces. Precisely, when a beauty quark decays, it transforms into a set of lighter particles, such as electrons and muons, through the influence of the weak force. But the recent LHCb experiment at CERN appears to have found an irregularity in this decay.

According to the Standard Model of physics, which is our best attempt to explain the universe’s composition, a beauty quark should not discriminate between an electron and a muon (a particle that is the carbon copy of an electron, but only 200 times more massive) while decaying. However, it was found that the beauty quarks preferred one channel over the other. They were decaying into electrons more often than the muons.

The new results have caused huge excitement among particle physicists. However, to be sure, further experiments with more precision are required. Nevertheless, if it exists, the fifth fundamental force can play a significant role in solving some of the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos, including those of dark matter.

First planet beyond the Milky Way galaxy

By using a new method of searching that relies on looking for the celestial bodies at X-ray wavelengths, scientists are speculating to have found a planet that doesn’t lie just outside our solar system but outside our galaxy.

The potential exoplanet candidate is in Messier 51, also known as the Whirlpool Galaxy, and was detected by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The discovery is based on transits, where the passage of a planet in front of a star blocks some of the star’s light and yields a characteristic dip in brightness that telescopes can detect.

A Hidden Force in Nature, Mysterious Radio Signals, And Other Exciting Discoveries in October. 2
The Chandra X-Ray Telescope | Image: NASA

In total, Nasa’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton space telescope looked at 55 different systems in the Whirlpool galaxy, 64 systems in the Pinwheel galaxy, and 119 systems in the Sombrero galaxy. They found the possible exoplanet in the Whirlpool galaxy in a binary system orbiting two large objects, either a neutron star or a black hole that orbits a massive companion star.

The transit lasted for a total of about three hours, and the X-ray emissions dipped to zero. This helped the researchers to figure out that the object is approximately the size of Saturn, and it orbits the neutron star (or a black hole) at a distance twice that of Saturn’s distance from our Sun. However, it’s expected to take at least 70 years to confirm if the exoplanet candidate is actually a planet or not.

Over 1600 FRBs from a single source

An abbreviation for Fast Radio Bursts, FRBs are mysterious emissions of radio waves that release massive energy comparable to that produced by the Sun over many months in a fraction of a second. And now, astronomers have observed the largest set of FRB events ever discovered.

The group used the new Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) in Guizhou, China, and detected over 1600 independent FRB  transmissions in 47 days from a single source, named FRB 121102. However, since FRBs occur for a short period, lasting only one-thousandth of a second, it’s challenging to locate their source.

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An aerial view of FAST | Image: Ou Dongqu/Xinhua/ZUMA

But FRB 121102 is unique, as it was the first one discovered to repeat, thereby allowing us to locate its source that lies in a dwarf galaxy about 3 billion light-years away.

Learn Astrophysics at home

Did you always want to learn how the universe works? Then, read our 30-article Basics of Astrophysics series absolutely free of cost. From the popular topics such as stars, galaxies, and black holes to the detailed concepts of the subject like the concept of magnitude, the Hertzsprung Russell diagram, redshift, etc., there is something for everyone in this series. All the articles are given here. Happy reading!

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