Astronomy’s newest mystery objects, odd radio circles or ORCs, have been pulled into sharp focus by an international team of astronomers using the world’s most capable radio telescopes.
First revealed by the ASKAP radio telescope, owned and operated by Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, odd radio circles quickly became objects of fascination. Theories on what caused them ranged from galactic shockwaves to the throats of wormholes.
A new detailed image, captured by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory’s MeerKAT radio telescope and published today in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (DOI 10.1093/mnras/stac701), is providing researchers with more information to help narrow down those theories.
There are now three leading theories to explain what causes ORCs:
- They could be the remnant of a huge explosion at the centre of their host galaxy, like the merger of two supermassive black holes;
- They could be powerful jets of energetic particles spewing out of the galaxy’s centre; or
- They might be the result of a starburst ‘termination shock’ from the production of stars in the galaxy.
To date ORCs have only been detected using radio telescopes, with no signs of them when researchers have looked for them using optical, infrared, or X-ray telescopes.
Dr Jordan Collier of the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy, who compiled the image from MeerKAT data said continuing to observe these odd radio circles will provide researchers with more clues.
“People often want to explain their observations and show that it aligns with our best knowledge. To me, it’s much more exciting to discover something new, that defies our current understanding,” Dr Collier said.
The rings are enormous – about a million light years across, which is 16 times bigger than our own galaxy. Despite this, odd radio circles are hard to see.
Professor Ray Norris from Western Sydney University and CSIRO, one of the authors on the paper, said only five odd radio circles have ever been revealed in space.
“We know ORCs are rings of faint radio emissions surrounding a galaxy with a highly active black hole at its centre, but we don’t yet know what causes them, or why they are so rare,” Professor Norris said.
Professor Elaine Sadler, Chief Scientist of CSIRO’s Australia Telescope National Facility, which includes ASKAP, said for now, ASKAP and MeerKAT are working together to find and describe these objects quickly and efficiently.
“Nearly all astronomy projects are made better by international collaboration – both with the teams of people involved and the technology available,” Professor Sadler said.
“ASKAP and MeerKAT are both precursors to the international SKA project. Our developing understanding of odd radio circles is enabled by these complementary telescopes working together.”
To really understand odd radio circles scientists will need access to even more sensitive radio telescopes such as those of the SKA Observatory, which is supported by more than a dozen countries including the UK, Australia, South Africa, France, Canada, China and India.
“No doubt the SKA telescopes, once built, will find many more ORCs and be able to tell us more about the lifecycle of galaxies,” Professor Norris said.
“Until the SKA becomes operational, ASKAP and MeerKAT are set to revolutionise our understanding of the Universe faster than ever before.”
ASKAP is located on Wajarri Yamatji country in Western Australia, and MeerKAT is located in the Northern Cape province of South Africa.