NASA’s NuSTAR telescope has uncovered possible evidence that “zombie” stars in our galactic center are devouring the living.
Space is a beautiful yet terrifying place, and our observations continue to prove that fact. Stars are a great example – our own sun warms the planet, allows life to thrive, and is generally a fantastic presence in our system. But NASA is getting a very different picture from our galactic core, where NuSTAR telescope images are finding bizarre high-energy X-rays. Although scientists don’t have a clear explanation for the phenomenon, one theory keeps cropping up – these are the “howls” of zombie stars devouring their neighbors.
The center of our galaxy is a hectic place, where young stars, old stars, black holes, and “other varieties of stellar corpses” – NASA’s words, not ours – orbit a supermassive black hole. It’s a region we’re only just starting to understand thanks to NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array), the first telescope capable to taking crisp images of the chaos. What it found was a sector 40-light years long with unusual X-rays that overwhelm the usual stellar activity.
“Almost anything that can emit X-rays is in the galactic center,” Kerstin Perez of Columbia University in New York explained. “The area is crowded with low-energy X-ray sources, but their emission is very faint when you examine it at the energies that NuSTAR observes, so the new signal stands out.”
So where do the zombie stars fit in? In short, stars don’t always die peacefully in a senior solar home surrounded by loved ones. Sometimes collapsed dead stars can reach out and siphon energy from other stars, especially when attached to a binary system. This “feeding” process will vary from star to star, but one possible effect are bursts of X-rays.
Even if these X-rays aren’t generated by hydrogen-hungry zombies, that doesn’t mean the stars producing them are alive… so to speak. Pulsars and white dwarfs are other examples of stars that emit energy long after giving up the ghost. But what’s fascinating is that no one theory for these galactic center X-rays fit our previous research, leaving astronomers in the dark. “This new result just reminds us that the galactic center is a bizarre place,” said Columbia University’s Chuck Hailey. “In the same way people behave differently walking on the street instead of jammed on a crowded rush hour subway, stellar objects exhibit weird behavior when crammed in close quarters near the supermassive black hole.”
What do you think is emitting these X-rays? Zombie stars? Galactus? The “God” of Star Trek V: Final Frontier? Your guess is as good as any astronomers at this point, so feel free to post suggestions in the comments.