10 galactic objects that almost turn science into science-fiction

Contributed by
Aug 8, 2016

Space has inspired science fiction since before H.G. Wells terrified a nation with his War of the Worlds or H.P. Lovecraft’s Mi-Go flew through the aether, but sometimes it seems that actual phenomena in space could have been inspired by science fiction.

Imagine a universe in which burning planets freeze and frozen planets burn, where rogue black holes zoom into the unfathomable depths, where dead stars pulse like strobe lights and interstellar strife could potentially rewrite the laws of phsyics. It almost sounds like a concept some clever Star Trek screenwriter pulled from the sky — except it isn’t. There are some things out there, whether only a few hundred light-years from Earth or far, far away from the Milky way, that are bizarre enough and scientifically anomalous enough to even blow the minds of NASA astronomers.

Sci-fi genre MacGyvers should take note. Flying, spinning, zombie-walking and cannibalizing themselves among the stars are 10 galactic anomalies so out-there, if a Lovecraftian alien fungoid really were to touch down and carry your brain off to Pluto in a canister, it wouldn’t seem so strange.

Fire and ice: an artist's rendering of Gliese 436 b. 

The Ice Inferno

Ice is frozen water. You learned that before junior high. An alien planet is now going to take everything you know about ice being formed by H2O molecules freezing into a solid state —a nd burn it. Gliese 436 b is a bona fide inferno of ice, or the biggest oxymoron in space. Under swirls of hydrogen and helium gas, its gravitational force is so immense that it actually compresses oceans of scalding water into a thick layer of what scientists call ice-ten (ice X). This isn’t exactly ice that can be found in your freezer. Ice X is formed when pressure is raised on liquid water to the point that the oxygen bonds contract until it makes an almost magical transition to a molecular crystal. You still wouldn’t want a cube of this in your drink, even if your teeth were chattering through a below-zero winter. The melting point of ice X is anywhere from 1000-2400 Kelvin (an almost unfathomable measure of degrees Farenheit). Apparently there is now some truth to the Alice in Wonderland quote “the sea is boiling hot”. 

CFBDSIR2149 going rogue in an artist's rendering.

The Outcast Planetoid

Planets orbit stars. That’s just the way the universe works, right? Just 100 light-years away from our perfectly conformist solar system, a rogue ball of water and gaseous methane is wandering orbit-less through space because it got kicked out of its celestial clique. Sort of. While there were no pink-wearing planetary mean girls to speak of, what astronomers believe happened is that CFBDSIR2149 was caught up in the turbulence of the early years of its solar system, when everyone was vying for a coveted orbit around its star. The socially awkward space object, whose planet status is still being debated (which makes it even more of a misfit), is the closest thing to a theoretical rogue planet that scientists have been able to find. We can imagine its angst-filled diary would probably say that it was flung out by force after the popular ones claimed their orbits and gave it the dreaded “you can’t sit with us” treatment.  There is still no measure of exactly how many of these emo loners are floating in the dark.

Artist's rendering of a quasar similar to SDSS J0100+2802.

The Quasar That Insulted Physics

Monsters are real, and they laugh in the face of physics. Any dragon able to eat dust the way a supermassive black hole does and spew out blinding jets of radiance to form a quasar (so much scarier than that clichéd fire-breathing stunt) probably would. What makes SDSS J0100+2802 even more arrogant than Smaug is that its freakish proportions pretty have pretty much made the cosmological models that try to make sense of quasar formation go up in flames. It’s insanely old, insanely far, insanely huge, and insanely brigh, meaning this thing hatched no less than 13 billion years ago (seeing as how that’s about how many light years away it is), has a ravenous black hole 12 billion times the size of our sun, and shines with the fury of 420 trillion suns. Its size, alone, shatters theories of how fast and how early a black hole can start getting gargantuan. The natural limits it pushes have made it necessary for astrophysicists to take apart skeletons of how these limits supposedly work and re-articulate the bones. 

The largest water reservoir in space, APM 08279+5255, as rendered by an artist.

The Black Hole Water Park

Don’t break out your bathing suit and sunblock (spaceblock?) yet, because there are no water slides here. Speaking of quasars, NASA’s discovery of APM 08279+5255 made such a splash because the last thing astronomers even expected to find in the deep end of space — and such a massive amount flooding a black hole, of all things — is water vapor. You wouldn’t want to swim in it, though, considering that the vapor’s presence, alone, means it is being drowned in a radioactive cocktail of X-rays and infrared radiation. Powered by a behemoth black hole that devours surrounding gas and dust like cotton candy and funnel cakes, the quasar releases a Kraken of energy - try enough to set a thousand trillion suns ablaze. Early incarnations of the universe did contain traces of water vapor, but never like this. The luminous monster not only contains evidence of what was thought not to exist 12 billion light-years away, but enough to equal 140 trillion times the water of all Earth’s oceans. 

Artist's rendering of the dangerous dance of WASP-18B and its star.

The Exoplanet That Should Have Been Eaten

Predators and prey in space can be just as vicious as anything lurking in a dark alley, and yet this potential victim has somehow been evading its captor — and the laws of physics — for at least a billion years. Exoplanet WASP-18B should have been swallowed by its star some time back in the dinosaur age. Physics says that a planet ten times the size of Jupiter the warp-speed orbit of which lasts just under 24 hours means gravity should have sent an exoplanet this huge and dangerously close to its star crashing right into it. Defied. Physics also says that, since WASP-18B is orbiting faster than its star is spinning, it should be in caught in an inward death spiral towards the star’s fiery jaws. Defied again. Somehow, what should be prey hasn’t yet succumbed to astral hunger. Astronomers studying this phenomenon are now having migraines over whether the laws of gravity bend themselves outside the Milky Way. While this hard-partying planet will burn out from the fast life, it won’t be for another half-million years. 

The scorching side of Gliese 581 c as imagined by an artist.

The Two-Faced Planet

Gliese 581 c does have a potentially habitable zone (at least by Earth standards), which got scientists all excited for a moment, but that’s where the fun abruptly ends. What soon had them skeptical about a real-life version of The Jetsons in this questionable paradise was the burning hell on one side and the freezing hell on the other. Most planets spin as they orbit their stars, which makes for a relatively even distribution of light and heat, with the hottest zones towards the middle and the coldest to the extreme north and south. This is why we made those solar system models out of wire and painted Styrofoam balls for the science fair. The reason you would need to turn up the AC on one side of Gliese 581 c and the heat on the other is that it never spins. The planet with two faces is an anomaly, split between two extremes because it is gravitationally locked with the red dwarf it orbits. This means the force of gravity keeps only one side (you can guess which one) facing its star. We’ll keep our heaters and AC units.

The pulsar that defied physics in an artistic interpretation.

The Pulsar That Broke the Law

This is the story of how a zombie star totally smashed a law of physics. The Eddington limit dictated the maximum brightness with which an object in space can light up the darkness, depending on its mass. If the limit was so unbreakable, though, then scientists wanted to know what that thing pulsing like a 90s rave from over 12 million light-years away was — why it was bright enough to crumble that law to space dust. NASA’s NuStar telescope saw a pulsar, which contradicted the black hole this strobe light in space was previously mistaken for (blame x-ray emissions). That still doesn’t explain how a microscopic dead star, at least one that’s microscopic by the standards of our current laws of physics, can illuminate the depths of space with the same brightness of something many times its size. It could mean an error of physics. It could also mean that space is infinitely weirder than we ever thought possible.

PSR B1257+12 imagined by an artist.

The Dead Solar System

Far from being the disco ball of the universe, the pulsar PSR B1257+12 really does act undead, minus the insatiable craving for brains but including an appetite for mass destruction. Earthlings and earthling scientists have come to think of solar systems as planets orbiting balls of burning plasma that won’t kill anything that doesn’t creep too close. While light, itself, is a form of electromagnetic radiation, the extreme radiation PSR B1257+12 gives off from spinning like a demon is the same lethal kind responsible for the corpse-gray, crater-filled wastelands that stretch across the desolate expanse of dystopian science-fiction — and its planets. Everything that orbits this phantom looks like a galactic graveyard. Astronomers speculate its planets could have even been (theoretically) habitable until the supernova’s death throes blasted them with a shockwave that annihilated their atmospheres and everything else. No wonder their names are Draugr, Phoevetor and Poltergeist.

Actual image of the Coma Cluster.

The Intergalactic Coma Ward

If there was anything in the known universe that sounded more sci-fi than dark matter, then a TV show would have been named after it, too. Except there is something out there, and it’s actually called The Coma Cluster. This realm of the unconscious is inhabited by 800 galaxies in a suspended state of animation. It's not exactly what most people (or scientists) have in mind at the thought of a galaxy, which brings up all sorts of glowing multicolor images when you type it into Google. The Coma Cluster looks like a black chasm. Astronomers believe what is keeping its star systems on life support is an invisible force that must have a high enough mass to keep the pull of gravity from shredding them to cosmic confetti — and that force is dark matter. 99% of this peculiar hospital ward is thought to be dark matter, with the remaining 1% a faint glimmer of starlight. So, how did things get so dark out there? It was lights-out for these galaxies when they were bled out of the gases needed for new stars to be born, and there are no IVs in space.

Simulation of one black hole getting blasted off into space by another. 

Supermassive Speeding Black Holes

Because black holes apparently aren’t sci-fi enough, they now rocket through space at 3 million miles per hour. This is exactly what happened with a particularly energetic one in star system CID-42. How something weighing millions of times as much as our sun could possibly turn into an overnight track star is baffling in itself, but it gets even weirder. Astronomers investigating the fast-moving phenomenon suspect it got involved in a particularly nasty encounter with another black hole. When it collided and merged with the other black hole, a punch of gravitational wave radiation (one of Einstein’s spatial anomalies) launched it through space. Gravitational waves, which warp the space-time continuum, are pretty much the universe’s answer to a high-powered accelerator if provoked. What crosses this undead star over into the horror genre is that it gobbled all the gases around it like Pac-Man before takeoff, so it can strike without being seen. The universe now has an invisible death machine on its hands. 

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