Bizarre object 10 million times brighter than the sun defies physics, NASA says

A glowing neutron star swirls against a fiery orange background with whips of megnetic field spinning out
An illustration of a neutron star -- an ultra-luminous X-ray source -- spinning around as tendrils of magnetic field whip through space. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Something in outer space is breaking the law — the laws of physics, that is. 

Astronomers call these lawbreakers ultraluminous X-ray sources (ULXs), and they exude about 10 million times more energy than the sun. This amount of energy breaks a physical law known as the Eddington limit, which determines how bright something of a given size can be. If something breaks the Eddington limit, scientists expect it to blow itself up into pieces. However, ULXs  "regularly exceed this limit by 100 to 500 times, leaving scientists puzzled," according to a NASA statement (opens in new tab).

New observations published in The Astrophysical Journal (opens in new tab) from NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), which sees the universe in high-energy X-rays, confirmed that one particular ULX, called M82 X-2, is definitely too bright. Prior theories suggested that the extreme brightness could be some sort of optical illusion, but this new work shows that's not the case — this ULX is actually defying the Eddington limit somehow.

Astronomers used to believe ULXs could be black holes, but M82 X-2 is an object known as a neutron star. Neutron stars are the leftover, dead cores of stars like the sun. A neutron star is so dense that the gravity on its surface is about 100 trillion times stronger than that of Earth. This intense gravity means that any material pulled onto the dead star's surface will have an explosive effect. 

"A marshmallow dropped on the surface of a neutron star would hit it with the energy of a thousand hydrogen bombs," according to NASA (opens in new tab).

The new study found that M82 X-2 consumes around 1.5 Earths' worth of material each year, siphoning it off of a neighboring star. When this amount of matter hits the neutron star's surface, it's enough to produce the off-the-charts brightness the astronomers observed. 

The research team thinks this is evidence that something must be going on with M82 X-2 that lets it bend the rules and break the Eddington limit. Their current idea is that the intense magnetic field of the neutron star changes the shape of its atoms, allowing the star to stick together even as it gets brighter and brighter.

"These observations let us see the effects of these incredibly strong magnetic fields that we could never reproduce on Earth with current technology," lead study author Matteo Bachetti (opens in new tab), an astrophysicist at the Cagliari Astronomical Observatory in Italy, said in the statement. "This is the beauty of astronomy … we cannot really set up experiments to get quick answers; we have to wait for the universe to show us its secrets."

Briley Lewis
Freelance science writer

Briley Lewis (she/her) is a freelance science writer and Ph.D. Candidate/NSF Fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles studying Astronomy & Astrophysics. Follow her on Twitter @briles_34 (opens in new tab) or visit her website (opens in new tab).

  • Giovani
    admin said:
    A bizarre 'ultraluminous X-ray source' shines millions of times brighter than the sun, breaking a physical law called the Eddington limit, a new study finds.

    Bizarre object 10 million times brighter than the sun defies physics, NASA says : Read moreWhat distance are we talking about? Even with the sheer distance in light years, these phenomena are not all excluded from reaching earth.
    The energy displayed by these objects may take a billion years to reach us, but I believe some will and at any time. It's been quiet here for thousands of years. Nothing nearing archaic impacts of cosmic origin has occurred, allowing human populations to multiply in near perfect conditions environmentally.
    Just a hint of the energy output displayed by these objects would easily be our end once it reaches us. I find it nearly impossible to doubt that this is a reality. The energies we witness are capable of spanning the distances eventually.
  • bolide2
    Giovani said:
    Umm ... The energy from this object has reached us. That is how we know about it. If it hadn't yet reached us, we couldn't see it, and we wouldn't know that anything was happening there.

    Despite the tremendous energy it is putting out, that energy is attenuated by the inverse-square law, so that by the time this impossibly-bright light reaches us, it appears as nothing more than a bright point, to a powerful telescope.

    There are many powerful objects and violent processes in space. But space is so immense, and things are so far apart, that Earth will likely be burnt to a cinder by the expanding Sun, before we are ever threatened by some passing neutron star.
  • Gazzar
    "Neutron stars are the leftover, dead cores of stars like the sun."

    No they are not. Neutron stars are created when a massive star goes supernova. The end state of Sun like stars are white dwarfs which are a different category of objects from neutron stars (white dwarfs are electron degenerate, neutron stars are neutron degenerate).