By Marina Koren
Working the night shift can be pretty boring, even if you’re a telescope. You stare at the same section of sky for hours. Every night, you take in light from the same distant points in the abyss. There’s that asteroid you observed last night, and the night before that, and before that. The job, as important as it is, can be pretty tedious.
But sometimes the universe sends a little excitement—a cosmic phenomenon astronomers have explored only with theoretical models.
One night in June of last year, a telescope in Hawaii captured something noteworthy in its nightly scan. A luminous dot appeared where nothing had been before, as if someone had switched on a light. A message immediately went out on the Astronomer’s Telegram, an alert system for astronomers around the world.
A scramble ensued. There’s no guarantee unexpected objects in the night sky will stick around. Astronomers directed telescopes of all kinds at the point of light, observing the target in every wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum, from optical light to invisible X-rays. Early data revealed the light originated outside the Milky Way galaxy, from a small, nearby galaxy about 200 million light-years away. (Yes, this is actually considered nearby in cosmic standards.)
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