Astronomers have spotted a massive energy burst coming from space, and it looks to be moving at a speed 7 times faster than light. Of course, this is an optical illusion caused by the uncommon and perplexing phenomena known as superluminal motion, which happens when particles approach the speed of light. In this instance, researchers found a jet of energy erupting from a stellar collision site at a startling 99.97% of the speed of light, or approximately 670 million mph (1.07 billion km/h), or 1.07 billion miles per hour.
The jet in issue is the outcome of a cosmic catastrophe that initially attracted attention from scientists in 2017. Around 140 million light-years from Earth, a catastrophic collision was discovered between neutron stars, ultra-dense, collapsing stellar cores that condense a sun’s worth of material into a ball barely bigger than a city. Gravitational waves are distortions in space-time caused by a collision that was so powerful that they appeared. Following the detection of a collision between two black holes in 2016, it took scientists 100 years to discover the data that supported Albert Einstein’s 1916 prediction that these space-time ripples exist. The gravitational waves produced by the colliding neutron stars in 2017—a signal known as GW17081—were the first to be noticed from a source other than a black hole, demonstrating that all kinds of cosmic disasters can produce them.
Although they cannot be seen with the human eye, gravitational waves can be picked up by devices like the Large Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory near Pasadena, California. As a result, astronomers from all around the world focused their telescopes on the merger when LIGO discovered the first wave burst from the colliding stars in 2017. Soon after the collision, astronomers observed visual evidence of a high-speed jet of particles shooting out of the impact site and illuminating globules of materials that had been expelled by the stars. In their recent study, scientists describe their analysis of that jet using the Hubble Space Telescope, the Gaia space observatory, and a number of additional terrestrial radio telescopes. The team used these measurements to determine the jet’s true speed as well as its apparent defying of physics speed.
The disparity in speed between the jet’s constituent particles and the light particles (or photons) that they release causes the appearance of beyond-light speed. Because the jet’s particles move almost as quickly as the light they emit, it may appear that early jet particles and later jet photons are approaching Earth at approximately the same moment, giving the impression that the jet is moving faster than the speed of light. A near-light-speed jet erupting from the Messier 87 galaxy in the Virgo constellation is one other cosmic object where astronomers have previously seen this illusion at work. So far, every case of superluminal travel has a mathematical explanation that does not violate any established physical principles.