NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory has once again helped astronomers track down a celestial oddity.
After the space telescope recently shed new light on a rare type of neutron star 200,000 light-years away — the first of its kind spotted outside the Milky Way, as reported by the Inquisitr — Chandra set its sights even farther beyond our galaxy’s borders and came across a mysterious cosmic ring found 300 million light-years from Earth.
This bizarre structure — which the Chandra X-Ray Observatory website describes as “a ring of X-ray power,” a quip that echoes Tolkien’s Middle Earth universe — is nestled within a galaxy called AM 0644-741 (AM 0644 for short).
And, if anything could trump Sauron’s infamous ring of power, this would be it. According to NASA, the enigmatic ring discovered inside the AM 0644 galaxy is made out of either neutron stars (ultra-dense and massive stars formed from the collapsed cores of supernovae) or — get ready for this — black holes.
This awe-inspiring discovery was unveiled in a stunning composite image, released yesterday by the space agency and stitched together from X-ray observations taken by Chandra (imaged in purple) and optical data captured by the Hubble Space Telescope (shown in red, green, and blue).
Details on this captivating galactic ring of neutron stars — or of black holes — can also be found in a recent study, published last month in the Astrophysical Journal.
But how does such a perplexing structure come to be? Well, scientists believe that this particular ring was forged in the fires of a galactic collision, as two almost equally sized galaxies smashed into one another.
In fact, “AM 0644-741 is what astronomers refer to as a ‘ring’ galaxy,” created from the violent galactic impact, explain officials from the Chandra observatory.
This “catastrophic collision” generated gas ripples throughout the galaxy, which eventually “produced an expanding ring of gas in AM 0644 that triggered the birth of new stars,” notes NASA.
So, how does this translate into a ring of black holes or neutron stars? The explanation is quite simple. These objects are what’s left behind after the massive stars formed in the gas ring reach the end of their short lives and go supernova. In the aftermath of these explosions, the gas ring remains populated with either stellar-mass black holes five to twenty times more massive than the sun or typical neutron stars, weighing about 1.5 solar masses.
The video below, uploaded on YouTube by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, illustrates the entire process, explaining how the mysterious ring inside AM 0644-741 was formed.
“This ring, while not wielding power over Middle Earth, may help scientists better understand what happens when galaxies smash into one another in catastrophic impacts,” NASA officials stated in a news release.
Chandra was able to pick up this otherworldly phenomenon after zeroing in on the X-ray emissions coming from some of the objects inside the ring. These objects, be they neutron stars or black holes, exist in binary systems — meaning that they each live in close quarters with a star in the gas ring.
But this type of union is generally unfortunate for the stellar companion, which usually gets devoured by the black hole or neutron star in its proximity. As these objects much on gas siphoned from their neighbor star, they shoot out intense X-ray emissions, which Chandra can detect.
A similar one-on-one interaction between a single black hole and its stellar companion was described by the Inquisitr earlier this year, revealing what happens when a star gets gobbled up by a black hole.
The interesting thing about the X-ray sources found by Chandra inside the ring is that they are all “bright enough to be classified as ultraluminous X-ray sources,” notes NASA.
“This is a class of objects that produce hundreds to thousands of times more X-rays than most ‘normal’ binary systems in which a companion star is in orbit around a neutron star or black hole,” explains the space agency.
So far, astronomers haven’t been able to figure out whether these objects are black holes or neutron stars. It may turn out that they are actually a mixture of the two, although it’s entirely possible that they are exclusively black holes or neutron stars.