Oops! 8 Finding astrophysicists Didn't expect to Make

Last year, the Milky Way’s central black hole was thought to rip apart the gas cloud G2. But like so many overhyped action flicks, the real show did not go as expected. Researchers trained their telescopes on the galactic center for months, waiting. And nothing actually happened.

But as they were carefully observing, they observed lots of other things never before seen. They observed the brightest-ever X-ray burst from the galactic center, a massive 400 times brighter than normal. They also found a new Magnetar, an uncommon kind of neutron star (a star as dense as an atomic nucleus but the size of a city).

And that just goes to show that lots of cool science occurs unintentionally, when researchers are searching for something else. Here are eight more findings they didn’t mean to make.

1. Different Kind of Detonation

In 1963, the US, the UK, and the USSR assured, perhaps with their fingers crossed behind their backs, not to trial nuclear devices anymore. The US Air Force, ever the big brother, launched a set of spy satellites to make sure nobody was violating the agreement. These “Vela” satellites (creepily titled after the Spanish verb velar, “to watch”) looked from space for the X-rays and gamma rays that give away these bomb blasts.

Instead of observing explosions from Siberia, though, the Velas spied bursts of gamma rays coming from space. We now aptly call them “gamma ray bursts,” and they produced from supernovae and from the crashes of super dense objects like neutron stars.

2. Hearing the Big Bang

The Holmdel horn antenna, built by Bell Laboratories, was as its name proposes a giant horn. It operated like a funnel for radio waves, gathering them into its wide end and directing them down into a detector.

In 1964, Bell employees Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were using the device to keep checks on the company’s balloon satellites. Though, they observed a strange phenomenon: No matter where they pointed it, or when, they heard a strange buzzing sound.

They looked into their funnel and shooed away some pigeons that had nested there, thinking a layer of feces might be the difficulty. But what they were really hearing wasn’t crap: It was the “cosmic microwave background,” the soft sizzle left over from the Big Bang. How irritating. Let’s hope it won them Employees of the Month awards.

3. Rhythmic Radio

Talk about paperwork: at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory outside Cambridge, UK, it was Jocelyn Bell’s job to study the 100 feet of paper it produced daily. In 1967, among all that data, she saw a pulse — like an EKG heartbeat — coming every 1.3 seconds from a specific spot. Bell took this “bit of scruff” to her boss and they called it “LGM-1,” half joking that it was the first signal from Little Green Men.

Soon, though, they discovered another pulse, this one every 1.6 seconds. They had found pulsars — the giants left after supernovae. They are city-sized balls of neutrons that can revolve hundreds of times a second. Every time they spin, radio waves shine our way, like light from a galactic lighthouse.

4. Uh-Oh Volcano

The 1979 pictures of Jupiter’s moons were just thought to help mission supervisors figure out where Voyager 1 was, precisely, in its flyby. However, when engineer Linda Morabito dialed up the contrast on an image of Io, trying to make the background stars more noticeable, she saw a huge cloud puffing out of the moon’s edge.

At first she assumed it was another moon creeping’ out from behind Io. But she and other researchers ultimately figured out they were observing a plume from a live volcano — the first extra-terrestrial volcanic explosion ever discovered. Today the Ionian volcano total positions at over 400.

5. Radio Waves – From Space! 

In 1928, Bell Laboratories had a vision: to make transatlantic telephone calls promising. They asked a scientist named Karl Jansky to solve the problem of static.

He made an antenna, now named “Jansky’s merry-go-round,” to examine the sources of static, and discovered just two: thunderstorms, and a continuous low-level hiss approaching from the center of our Milky Way.

Space is producing those radio waves! He concluded a deduction that published in the 1933 New York Times. He was right, and he had found radio astronomy itself. But Bell Labs considered it a fail: They couldn't fix space-static and allocated him another project. The forefather of radio astronomy never did radio astronomy again and didn't get to keep his merry-go-round.

6. Psst, It's a Planet

In 1781, British astrophysicist William Herschel was trying to index all the stars magnitude -8 or brighter. Sound boring? It was. That’s possibly why he got so happy when he observed a point of light that travelled across the sky at a different speed from the stars. That meant that it lived nearer to us than stars do. It was a new world: Uranus, first planet discovered since ancient times.

He desired to name the object after King George III, but that’s really nearsighted and patriotic, so we ended up with Uranus, to the pleasure of English-speaking third-graders everywhere.

7. Strange Emissions

Maarten Schmidt believed he was gazing at a star in 1963, but it was blasting out enormous amounts of radio waves, which stars don't actually do. He titled it a “quasi-stellar object” — a quasar. It had bizarre spectral lines, he noted. These lines are fingerprints of chemical compounds, and they tell astrophysicists what’s inside an object.

In a eureka moment, he comprehended the strange lines were in fact from hydrogen — they’d just been stretched out. That occurs when the compounds in question are in fact far away. In this case, billions of light-years away. For the radio waves to reach as brightly as Schmidt saw them, after traveling that far, the object producing them must be 100 times brighter than our whole galaxy.

Now we know quasars are crazy as of ferocity happening about distant supermassive black holes. Let’s carry on watching from the nosebleed seats, okay?

8. Jupiter's Cry

It was 1955 and Bernard Burke and Kenneth Franklin just needed to see if their radio antenna was functioning: point it at the Crab Nebula, push some buttons, and be done. But what they didn’t snip for was a weird crunching, buzzing, popping sound.

And the sound, they grasped, showed up 4 minutes earlier every night — just like things do when they come from our rotating sky (as a day is in fact 23 hours, 56 minutes. Hence, leap years). The pair had unintentionally found the first radio waves from another planet.

When electrons and protons travel through Jupiter’s magnetic field, it makes them spiral like a monotonous roller coaster, which causes them to scream (or, more scientifically, emit radio waves). Listen to those noises here.

Accidental Discoveries


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