A TRUE STAR

Scientists discovered an energetic “cosmic serpent” in our galaxy

This cosmic serpent has a lot of energy.
This cosmic serpent has a lot of energy.
Image: ESO
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In ancient-Egyptian mythology, Apep was the serpent god of darkness, destruction, and chaos. In contemporary astronomy, Apep is the nickname for a massive, just-discovered star system surrounded by serpentine dust swirls and officially known as 2XMM J160050.7-514245.

It is believed to be the only such star system of its kind in our galaxy and it’s destined for destruction. ”We never expected to find such a system in our own backyard,” said Joseph Callingham of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy in statement. Callingham is the author of the study unveiling this discovery, published today (Nov. 19) in Nature Astronomy.

Like its namesake mythological god of yore, who was blamed for solar eclipses and said to battle the sun god Ra every night, the cosmic serpent Apep is a sign of a very powerful force. Scientists believe that the star system is made up of a binary star system and a single star, which are rotating around each other, held together by gravity. The rotating stars in this system are called “Wolf-Rayet” stars. They are dying, very slowly, and will likely end their lives with a gamma-ray burst, one of the most energetic explosive forces in the universe: long-duration gamma-ray bursts.

Before their end, Wolf-Rayets release powerful stellar winds that hurl out matter at millions of miles per hour. In this system, stellar winds were measured to travel at nearly 7.5 million miles (12 million km) an hour. The dust created by these winds moves much more slowly, swirling like a pinwheel around the connected star systems—that’s the serpentine swirl dubbed Apep.

Gamma-ray bursts are rare and incredibly powerful, and thought to be caused by matter collapsing into a black hole. They can last anywhere between a few thousandths of a second to a few hours, and can release as much energy in that time frame as the Earth’s sun will over its entire lifetime. Apep seems to be the first gamma-ray burst progenitor found in our galaxy.

Further, scientists believe Apep is could cause a “long-duration” gamma-ray burst, which is when the energetic events last longer than a few seconds. These are some of the most powerful stellar events in the known universe.

In cosmic terms, Wolf-Rayet stars are short-lived. On a human scale, they’re practically eternal, lasting hundreds of thousands of years before ending in a dramatic and powerful explosion.

Astronomers say that this unique star system seems to be rotating so fast it’s practically ripping itself apart. As such, Apep’s final explosion is expected to be extremely powerful. But unlike the evil mythological Egyptian god, which could never be vanquished, not even by its arch enemy Ra, this cosmic serpent is destined to be defeated someday. At that point it will go out with a bang, literally, unlike any other.