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Unusual Transient in Boötes

We continue to follow the American Astronomical Society’s meeting in Long Beach with fascination. This has, indeed, become AAS week in these pages. But amidst the news of brown dwarf discoveries, a more massive Milky Way than previously thought, and asteroids around white dwarf stars, the story of a genuine mystery stands out. Such a mystery is the optical transient known as SCP 06F6, a flash of light picked up by the Hubble Space Telescope back in 2006. Have a look at the images below:


Image: This pair of NASA Hubble Space Telescope pictures shows the appearance of a mysterious burst of light that was detected on February 21, 2006. The event was detected serendipitously in a Hubble search for supernovae in a distant cluster of galaxies. The light-signature of this event does not match the behavior of a supernova or any previously observed astronomical transient phenomenon in the universe. Credit: : NASA, ESA, and K. Barbary (University of California, Berkeley/Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Supernova Cosmology Project).

Kyle Barbary (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) described follow-up work on this event to the gathered astronomers in Long Beach. Flashes of light from the cosmos are, of course, not rare in themselves — think supernovae, for example — but exploding stars peak after seventy days, whereas what Hubble saw steadily rose in brightness for a remarkable 100 days and then dimmed, more or less at the same rate, until it was gone. Nor does the transient suggest a gravitational lensing event, which would be much shorter. So what was it, and where did it occur?

The questions aren’t easy to answer. Hubble was looking at a galactic cluster eight billion light years away in the constellation Boötes when the event was detected, but the object could be anywhere along that line, which means it could even be in our own galaxy. Search through astronomical catalogs and you won’t find any sign of a star or galaxy where the flash occurred. Moreover, the light from the object fails to tag a specific element, although there is some suggestion we may be looking at redshifted molecular carbon absorption lines. If so, that would imply the source is a star approximately one billion light years away.

This is a signature, in other words, like no other celestial event ever recorded. The range of possible explanations thus far advanced is wide, an indication of just how odd this event really is. One theory is that we detected a collision between a white dwarf and a black hole, but that ranks as nothing more than a hypothesis at this point. Says Barbary, “We have never seen anything like it.”

More in this Space Telescope Science Institute news release.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • dad2059 January 8, 2009, 10:56

    Could we be witnessing an example of astroengineering?

    A huge launching laser shoving an interstellar probe into the cosmos?

    Or an optical CETI signal perhaps?

    Questions abound.

  • James M. Essig January 8, 2009, 14:28

    Hi Folks;

    This bazaar event causes me to wonder if an ETI civilization did itself in.

    I remember reading a reference to a report to the effect that it might be possible that a high mass specific yield themonuclear device detonated deep under the Earth’s ocean might have a chance at starting a propagating fusion chain reaction within the Earth’s oceans that would race around the globe on the order of one second thus effectively turning the Earth’s oceans into a thermonuclear device with a mass of about 10 EXP 18 tons and a yield of about 10 EXP 26 tons of TNT or the equivalent mass in TNT of a M class star.

    The reference I had read had suggested that nuclear detonations that were conducted underwater during the mid 20th century did not set off a propagating fusion reaction perhaps becuase the mass specific yields of the devices were not high enough and the devices were not detonated at a great enough depth wherein the situation of a lack of high enough water pressure to momentarilly resist the blast wave front would have not permitted momentarilly high enough transient peak pressures and temperatures required to set of a water fusion reaction.

    Perhaps some rouge ETI regime on a distant planet, perhaps a super Earth type of planet, designed some sort of a shaped charge nuclear device wherein the peak temperatures and pressures of the exploding device rose to a level several orders of magnitude higher than that which is possible by a typical spherically symmetric thermonuclear explosion.

    Open literature on the subject of shaped charged nuclear devices has suggested that simple designs of such devices might concentrate the explosive flux energy at much as 5 to 6 orders of magnitude above what is possible for a spherically symmetric nuclear blast.

    One of the predominant nuclear physicists who worked on the development of the Hydrogen bomb has reportedly once calculated that a 100 kilometer or so wide thermonuclear device made with utmost precision, a sort of homogenous thermonuclear crystal, if detonated in an appropriately spherically symmetric and judicious radial pattern, could actually produce tiny but macroscopic massed blackholes near or at the center of the exploding device.

    Now, I am not advocating exotoc nuclear weapons research here, however, given the huge number of potentially technically advanced ETI civilizations and the dangers that can come from free will, I would not be surprised if occasionally, such a civilization goes off the deep end at times.



  • kurt9 January 9, 2009, 1:30

    Maybe its the detonation of Praxis.

  • Usman Saeed January 9, 2009, 5:57

    Better still it could be a astrophysical anomaly with paradigm shifting potential!

  • Lito January 9, 2009, 12:29

    If an ETI civilization did itself in, wouldn’t there be some sort of cataloged star in the location where the anomaly occurred?

  • James M. Essig January 9, 2009, 18:45

    Hi Lito and other Folks;

    You have made a good point.

    One thing in particular that has interested me from time to time is what would the signature be of the collision of a highly relativistic, very large ETI world ship with a rouge planet.

    I have often wondered if some gamma ray burst are the result of a large highly relativistic ETI space craft colliding with an interstellar comet or small asteriod. I do not seriously consider that such a collision would give off an optical signal for between days to months however, as the debris would very rapidly radiate away its heat energy. At a T EXP 4 dependence of integrated electromagnetic black body power radiance, the perhaps trillion to 100 trillion K effective temperature of a ETI space craft collision with a comet would produce a short gamma ray burst.

    Usman Saeed;

    I like the idea of an astrophysical anomaly with paradigm shifting potential.



  • andy January 9, 2009, 19:34

    If I were to guess, my bet is something involving a compact star. Such objects have immense potential for weird behaviour (which is a relevant factor for building interstellar beacons – if you want it to be detected, making sure it can’t be mistaken for some natural process involving, say, a neutron star is an important consideration).

  • Steve Muise January 13, 2009, 10:43

    Is it possible that this is the signature of someone’s drive system? As the ship changed it’s attitude (perhaps for a braking sequence) the business end of the drive might end up pointing at Hubble.

    I’ll be the first to admit that this is highly unlikely, but…