Baffled by Mysterious New Object
By John Maynard and Jamie Stensrud
April 24, 2000
A new object dubbed XTE J1118+480 appeared seemingly out of nowhere on March 29th this year and has been the subject of much debate. When describing this new object, Robotic Optical Transient Search Experiment scientist Jim Wren of Los Alamos Laboratories and Ron Remillard of MIT have described it as "a mystery", "a beast" and as "a slow moving searchlight." These unique comments set this discovery apart from other routine discoveries of new objects. Consequently, this particular discovery stands out like a red flag, simply because it has left astronomers in a baffled state.
Why are astronomers baffled? They say this new object looks like a black hole but does not behave like a black hole. It looks like a pulsar but it does not behave like a pulsar. In the rush to assign some kind of significance to this new object, individuals from outside the scientific community have been quick to assign their own interpretations of this baffling new object. So far we have heard, or read that:
What we will attempt to do in this article is explain what this object appears to not be, and on the other hand, what it may actually be. Then, we'll share something with you that may delight you. But first, let's start with the facts.
LOCATION: XTE J1118+480 is located in the area of the Big Dipper at coordinates RA: 11h18m17s, DEC: +48 degrees, 3 minutes. Amateur astronomers can observe this object with a high quality scope (4-6" minimum.).
OBSERVED BEHAVIOR: The following evidence has come to light regarding this object:
Explaining Away the Obvious
Current theory holds that the light from the object does not come from the object itself, but from an area surrounding it. This agrees with a known phenomenon called an accretion disk, a flattened-out area of matter (mostly gas, some dust), spinning around and into an object with a high gravitational field.
When a massive star or black hole moves through space, it attracts matter, and, following basic laws of angular momentum, the spinning of the object draws this matter into a disk with the same rotational plane as the object itself.
As the object's gravity draws the matter closer, the matter speeds up and begins to heat, emitting first infrared (heat) energy, then moving up the spectrum through visible light and into the x-ray and gamma-ray zones. These emissions would appear to come from the object itself if the accretion disk is sufficiently small or the object a great distance away.
A number of theoretical objects fit into this pattern. The first is a black hole, an object formed when a massive star collapses in on itself at the end of its lifetime, its gravity no longer sufficient to support its increased mass (caused by fusion reactions in its core during its latter stages). It is doubtful this newly discovered object is a black hole - the emissions of light are too regular for a standard accretion disk.
A neutron star also fits into this pattern, and is perhaps more probable. In binary star systems (where two stars orbit each other), the more massive one will frequently draw matter off the lighter one, sending it spiraling toward its surface (forming a small accretion disk) where it speeds up and heats (as in the case of a black hole).
In this scenario the bursts of light would in fact be regular, as the incoming stream of matter approaches "critical mass" and is annihilated in great emissions of energy. This energy is then funneled to the rotational axes of the object, making it a veritable "flashlight", sweeping its beam around as it spins. The only problem with this is - when this happens, the pulses are extremely rapid, on the order of thousands every second (hence the name "pulsar" being given to neutron stars of this nature). A pulsar with a period of four hours has never been observed before.
(These ideas are the accepted theories of current NASA thought, not necessarily the tenets of TMG).
What It Could Be
If XTE J1118+480 is not a black hole or a pulsar, what could it be? The possibilities include:
We have already spent a considerable amount of time searching through NASA to see what we could discover, which sad to say was not much. Is this because NASA is uninterested in this baffling new object? Or has the astrophysics world (where grants and money call the shots) failed to yield up an individual who is willing to swim against the tide and to air all the facts.
We also searched MIT Space Research Center, but could only come up with an e-mail address for Ron Remillard, at Los Alamos. The websites were a much more difficult place to search for information. As of the writing of this article, no new news articles other than those hyperlinked above (from either institution), have been presented to the press or posted to their respective webpages.
The lack of follow-through by the scientific community on XTE J1118+480 is terribly disappointing, because it could hold the key to an unimaginable wealth of new knowledge about the universe. More evidence is needed to make a proper identification. Because this object can be observed by enthusiasts with high quality amateur scopes, we urge both professional and amateur astronomers to intensify study of this baffling new object and to submit their results in an objective and open manner.
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