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Mysterious "Hanny's Voorwerp" Looks Like a Hydralisk, Could be Caused by Black Holes

Hanny’s Voorwerp was discovered in 2007 by Dutch astronomy enthusiast Hanny van Arkel as part of the citizen science project called Galaxy Zoo. When it was discovered, scientists were unable to discern exactly what was causing the cloud of gas to glow with, quite literally, the strength of 30,000 suns when it had no apparent  source of energy. Gamers were likely immediately suspicious as the mysterious object has more than a passing resemblance to a hydralisk (pictured right).

Scientists now think that Voorwerps, which is Dutch for “thing,” could be a tell-tale sign of a supermassive black hole, and are more common than previously assumed.

After the discovery of Hanny’s Voorwerp, scientists set about trying to figure out what the strange cloud was, and what was making it glow so brightly. Further observations showed that the light was coming from oxygen atoms, among others, whose electrons had been blasted away and ionized. They concluded that a huge dose of radiation was likely responsible, but that the energy from stars would not be likely to ionize the neon gasin the cloud, which astronomers had observed.

They believe that it was actually a massive dose of high-energy X-rays that spewed outward from the black hole inside nearby galaxy IC 2497 over 100,000 years ago. Because of the distances between the Voorwerp and the black hole, some 45,000 to 70,000 light years, the X-rays continued to stream through the dust cloud long after the black hole had ceased its binging. In fact, its still sitting dormant while the Voorwerp shines on.

That was some three years ago, and Hanny’s Voorwerp could have been written off as a fluke, but new research has found 19 such objects. More intriguing is that 75% of these are nearby colliding or merging galaxies, which tend to be hotbeds of X-rays. This suggests to researchers that Voorwerps could be used to spot high-energy activities nearby, a cosmic signpost for big things ahead.

Though 19 is hardly comparable to the untold billions of stars in even a single galaxy, the recent discoveries are a testament to our expanding knowledge of the universe as well as the keen eyes of citizen scientists like van Arkel. Hopefully, they’ll be able to track down more amazing anomalies, though preferably ones that look a little less ominous.

(via New Scientist)

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