A lot of what we currently know about space is theoretical. Technically, every single thing about the universe could be disproven by a single astronomical anomaly. It’s likely, too, because the one thing that we know for sure is that space is weird.
After all, we’re sitting on a rock in an already vast field of space that is, theoretically, expanding infinitely. The concept of infinite expansion is weird enough to wrap your head around. Given infinity, the number of strange, mysterious, and wonderful astronomical phenomena out there is limitless!
Do you know what’s going on right now in your own solar system?
We’re lucky that on our little grain of sand in the bottomless sandbox that is space, we have the telescopes and technology capable of documenting even a fraction of what’s goes on beyond the surface of Earth. There’s a lot of space out there, so you might have missed some quirky cosmic attractions while you focused your telescope on something else!
Keep reading to learn about ten of the strange, captivating, and weird astronomical phenomena that our scientists and engineers have captured so far!
1. Fast Radio Bursts
If our NASA engineers know how to do one thing, it’s how to send a message. For years, we’ve been transmitting a signal into deep space in a variety of languages in the hopes that someone or something might hear and answer us. The biggest question is whether we currently have the technology to know for sure that they haven’t answered us back.
Beginning in the year 2001, scientists began documenting what they call “fast radio bursts.” They range from repeating signals to single, bespoke bursts of energy. Although most last for fewer than five milliseconds from start to finish, they produce more energy than our galaxy’s sun produces over weeks.
These FRBs come from outside of our galaxy. There has been much speculation about whether they’re messages from another species or some kind of cosmic explosion. More recently, scientists have written off the alien communication theory and have settled on the most likely culprit for these strange astronomical phenomena.
Astrophysicists believe they may be coming from magnetars or magnetized neutron stars. Within the past year, scientists observed the first FRB right here in the Milky Way galaxy, confirming the hypothesis. There is still a question as to whether magnetars are the only source of these radio bursts or just one source out of many.
Don’t rule out the possibility that intelligent life is out there, and that it’s periodically saying hello in a big and violent way!
2. The Dwarf Planet Haumea
In infinite space, there exists the possibility of infinite planets. When we develop the technology to see further into the vastness of space, we might find planets matching any set of characteristics that we can imagine. While technology is still limiting our scope, we have fallen in love with the delightfully quirky dwarf planet Haumea!
You might not have heard of little Haumea, but she’s a big deal over in the Kuiper belt. She’s second in size only to our beloved Pluto, taking the same elongated trip around the sun. She even has two moons of her own: Namaka and Hi’iaka.
Our girl resembles a weird, oblong egg. From a distance, she looks like the perfect skipping stone – but if you tossed this rock into the river, the river would cease to exist!
She’s also the fastest spinning object of its size in our solar system. A full day on Haumea would last only four hours. Humans wouldn’t need to adjust to this odd schedule, however, because they’d surely freeze to death before they could get anywhere near her surface.
This calls to mind another one of our galaxy’s ice giants, Saturn. As it turns out, Haumea and Saturn have something in common: rings. The thing scientists can’t seem to agree upon is why this tiny, fast-spinning space egg would have rings at all.
The source of these rings was probably an ancient collision, and astrophysicists look forward to one day solving this mystery! It’s just one more bit of galaxy phenomena for scientists to decode in the future!
3. A Trans-Neptunian Object Called Sedna
In more recent strange astronomy news, there is a planetary body out there that was only discovered in 2003. If scientists act fast, they might be able to send a manned mission to reach it within the next decade. The problem is, if they can’t get it together in time, we won’t be able to visit this planet-like object again for over 11,000 years.
The object is Sedna, and scientists use a few different terms to describe it. While some might call it a dwarf planet, many scientists insist that it is something else entirely. The term “object of the scattered disk” is popular, as is “trans-Neptunian object.”
In layman’s terms? It’s a shiny, red ball of ice with an orbit so eccentric you’d think that it was trying to go out of its way to be quirky. Scientists believe it may also be home to an ocean. This means it has the potential to sustain some kind of life.
Its far reaches make distant Neptune seem like our next-door neighbors, but it’s getting closer to Earth every day. At its closest, it will take astronauts between 20 and 30 years to get close enough to do a flyby. Time is of the essence because our current technology can’t handle the trip without the right gravitational conditions.
Whatever you want to call Sedna, it’s a brand new undiscovered world, and the window to see it up close is already closing. Cross your fingers that our talented astrophysicists will be able to get a manned mission up and running in time to document this strange object up close!
4. The Mysterious Planet Nine
If you’re an earthling of a certain age, you will remember learning that there were nine planets in our solar system. Alas, a popular vote among the leading minds in the field determined that Pluto no longer qualified as a planet. That means that the role of “planet nine” is now available for the first planetary body that can prove that it’s worthy of the title.
According to Harvard Scientists, there’s already a contender. In fact, the dwarf planet Sedna discussed in #3 might have been a big clue to its existence. Sedna’s orbit (and the orbits of other dwarf planets and objects in that part of the galaxy) suggest that there’s a planet out there that we can’t see.
Theoretical physics makes it possible for astronomers to model different astrological conditions. The existence of a planet would explain the off-the-walls orbits of some of the more eccentric astrological objects out there. There’s another explanation that has scientists intrigued, however.
Rather than a planet, a black hole may be causing the behavior of Sedna and her friends. It might even be the sort of primordial black hole that was present at the big bang. Surprisingly, this theoretical abyss might be approximately the size of your average grapefruit.
The hope is that scientists will be able to confirm this theory with the help of the technology at the Vera C. Rubin observatory in Chile. If they can capture proof of a flare in that region of space, they will be able to confirm their suspicions. While scientists admit that the probability is small, they seem thrilled by the prospect of having a real, live black hole right in our galactic neighborhood!
5. Tabby’s Star
We’ve all grown up singing “Twinkle, twinkle little star.” For the most part, stars do not do much twinkling. It was exactly that behavior that attracted scientists’ attention to the star known as KIC 8462852, or Tabby’s Star.
The star appears to dim in brightness up to 22%. Citizen scientists with at-home telescopes were the first to notice the dimming effect, which may be the coolest part of its discovery!
The popular hypothesis seems to be that there is a ring of dust surrounding the star. As the dust moves, it causes a dimming effect visible through telescopes. While that may be the “boring” explanation, many scientists believe it’s too far-fetched to believe that a cloud could cause such extreme dimming.
The weirdest explanation is that the dimming is not caused by a dust cloud, but by a megastructure. They theorize that an advanced civilization may be siphoning energy from the star using some kind of supermassive device. While the odds are slim, it’s still a falsifiable hypothesis and therefore worthy of exploration!
The most recent theories involve the possibility of melting exomoons causing the twinkling effect. An exomoon is a moon that orbits a planet outside of our solar system. These moons are icy planetary bodies and could be spewing rocks into space as they evaporate or melt.
If this is the case, Tabby’s star might be slowly absorbing the exomoons. While an alien construct would be awesome, the thought of a star eating a moon is pretty cool, too!
6. Fermi Gamma-Ray Bubbles
We’ve already established that space is infinite, but did we mention the literal infinity symbol hovering in space at this very moment? The symbol consists of two distinct bubbles made of gamma rays. There is no other photon in the universe with more energy, making these bouncy bubbles a powerful mystery.
They are called Fermi Bubbles for the Fermi Gamma-ray Telescope that was used to discover them. It is a special, high-powered telescope specifically developed to study high-energy structures like black holes. It takes special tools to study the highest-energy form of light in the entire universe!
The bubbles appear to be expanding at 2.2 million miles per hour, and float somewhere near the black-hole center of the Milky Way galaxy. While it would take years to get there, they are a little close for comfort. After all, gamma rays are powerful enough to obliterate human chromosomes and turn all of humanity into space dust.
Right now, astrophysicists aren’t sure what astronomical phenomenon is capable of producing such a massive amount of energy. Weirder still is the fact that each “bubble” in the hourglass doesn’t appear to be surrounding anything.
The best guess seems to be that these “Fermi bubbles” are something unique, and don’t play by any of the established rules. Some scientists do believe that the bubbles are evidence of the existence of dark matter. We don’t currently know enough about dark matter to say for sure.
Whatever the case, the discovery of the bubbles is confusing scientists so much that they fear they might have to reconsider all the established rules about energy in space. After all, even gravity is just a theory, right?
7. The Crab Nebula
I regret to inform you that our universe has crabs.
Crab nebulae and crab pulsars, that is – and we’ve had them for a while. In fact, historians suggest we first caught sight of these fascinating astral objects as early as 1054 AD. It would take us centuries to observe them further, as they were at odds with the theological trends of the day.
At the center of each crab nebula is a crab pulsar. The pulsar is a neutron star that collapsed in on itself when the nebula’s core first exploded. These pulsars flash so rapidly that the human eye and brain are incapable of perceiving the actual effect of their energy bursts.
The crab nebula that you can see from your home is part of the constellation Taurus, the bull. While you can’t see it all the time, it’s visible with binoculars under very specific conditions. If you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse, you’re unlikely to see anything resembling a crab.
We see the effects of these bursts as an ethereal lavender glow. This is also due to the supermassive magnetic field surrounding the nebula, which causes its electrons to zoom through the nebula at top speeds. The light is the visual evidence of their movement, like an effervescent light trail.
The crab nebula has a series of tendrils, like an octopus’ legs, which extend at a rate of 1,000 miles per second. If you look at the same crab nebula once every few years, it will take on a different shape each time. The crab nebula early astronomers saw in 1054 AD probably looked completely different than the one you’d see today.
Astronomers have managed to capture some stunning high-res images over the years. The nebula looks like a hole that has opened up in the night sky, to reveal a psychedelic lightning storm. If you get a chance, definitely try to catch a glimpse of this gorgeous phenomenon with your own eyes!
8. The Einstein Cross
Albert Einstein somehow managed to predict the existence of a never-before-seen astronomical phenomenon years before we’d see it in action. The famous genius’ theory of general relativity explained what scientists would come to call “gravitational lens.”
If you’ve ever played with magnifying glasses or mirrors, you might have some idea of how this might work on a smaller scale. Einstein predicted that a galaxy could play the role of a magnifying glass. When it distorts light from another galaxy, it can create optical illusions visible in the night sky.
The most famous example is the Einstein Cross. In this instance, the lens duplicates the reflection of a distant galaxy’s light. When we look at the reflection, we see four identical, symmetrical points of light around a central nucleus, like a cross.
It can be hard to spot this phenomenon in action using at-home telescopes. You need the highest resolution possible to see the four distinct points of light clearly. Most of the images we have of Einstein’s Cross come to us via the Hubble Space Telescope.
9. The Star Vega
We’ve all met people who possess the urge to self-destruct, but did you know there are stars out there that are trying to do the same? Vega is a strange, oblong star whose level of brightness is baffling scientists. Its strange shape is due to the fact that it is rotating at 170 miles per second.
This rapid movement makes it nearly impossible to date the star, and we may never get a chance. Vega is spinning so fast that it’s literally ripping itself apart. By the time the right technology exists, there might not be enough of this speedy star left to study!
Even so, you might have seen Vega before. If you look up into the northern sky, you can track down the constellation Lyra, the eagle. Vega is the brightest star in that constellation and the second brightest in the hemisphere.
The most famous star in our solar system is arguably the sun (which is why we call it the solar system), but scientists consider Vega to be in second place. Because of Vega’s massive size, however, scientists don’t expect it to last nearly as long. There is still some serious discrepancy regarding how old the star is now!
Vega’s strange behavior means that early estimates of its age may have been off by as much as 200 million years. Even so, the star’s weird behavior hasn’t precluded scientists from using it as a baseline. It’s frequently used as a tool to help date other stars in the galaxy.
10. Nuclear Pasta
When medium-sized stars die, they like to go out with a bang – specifically a supernova explosion. This violent process leaves nothing behind but the core of the star. Those leftover electrons and protons tend to merge, forming the densest possible neutrons.
When exposed to extreme gravitational pressure, this substance behaves strangely and begins to distort. Have you ever taken a lump of play-doh and pushed it through an extruder? The thin, noodle-like strands that emerge look an awful lot like neutrons post-supernova.
Now, imagine that the play-doh emerging from the extruder is 10 billion times stronger than steel. Do you want to take a bite?
In essence, dead stars exposed to extreme forces yield… space spaghetti, which scientists sometimes call “nuclear pasta.” Other shapes have emerged from this process, too. Scientists have also discovered Nuclear Gnocchi and Nuclear lasagna at different levels of neutron stars.
Because of Nuclear Pasta’s unique makeup, it might be the strongest substance in the entire universe. It’s definitely the only substance that can last when exposed to forces within neutron stars. You’d need a pretty big fork, too, because it can weigh as much as 3,000 Earths.
To put it in perspective, a single cube of sugar would need to be the density of Mount Everest to last under the same conditions. As dense as it may be, the nuclear pasta is getting denser as time goes on. Scientists continue to observe these noodle-like structures to see what they might be capable of doing over time!
Catch Some Astronomical Phenomena Today
Outer space and the deep ocean have a few things in common. They are so vast and full of so many undiscovered entities that scientists and hobbyists alike may never finish documenting every wild and unprecedented thing! If it’s your dream to capture never-before-seen astronomical phenomena with your own eyes, chances are good that your future discovery is already out there waiting for you!
The first step is making sure that you have the right gear for the job. At AstroJunkies, we’ve done several review articles to get you some of the highest quality star-gazing gear on the market. With the right equipment, your discovery might make our next list!