The woman that found a ghost in the sky

On January 10th of 2020, the night became much brighter with the unexpected explosion of IK Pegasi, a star 150 light years away from the Sun. In what has become known as the night of two moons, astronomers were puzzled by the sudden explosion of a star that wasn’t scheduled to go nova for at least a few hundred million years. Polar skies were filled with auroras, a couple of satellites fried in orbit and 600km of power lines in Russia fried out, but despite all that, a woman in the outskirts Warsaw was looking at the opposite direction.

Julia, 36, lives in the small village of Pogorzel, some 40km away from Warsaw. A translator, she has no background in physics or astronomy, just “a healthy interest in the stars”, according to her own Twitter bio. “It was really cold, but everyone was out in the streets that night. I had just bought a telescope the week before, so I set it up on our sidewalk” she tells me over Skype. “But there’s trees everywhere so it was really hard to see anything in the direction of the supernova. I got really frustrated, and decided to turn the telescope towards the field behind our house, without any trees to block the view. People on the street kept pointing out to the treeline, saying the supernova was that way, but I don’t know…” She pauses a bit to find the right words in English: “I was stubborn, so I ignored them and aimed the telescope at Virgo. The sky was very bright so I couldn’t see many stars, but I could see one very clearly. I thought it was Venus, but then I checked it on my phone and found out it was Spica. It was a lot brighter than it should be, specially in a night so bright already. I remember thinking to myself that it would be super cool if it was another supernova as well. Then I realized I was probably the only person in the world with a telescope that wasn’t looking at Pegasi. What if I had just discovered another supernova on the same night? So I looked up online how to register that kind of stuff and found out the Transient Name Server thing. It took a while for the page to load, because of the heavy traffic I guess, but eventually I managed to fill all the forms. There was this line to put the name of the object and for some reason I thought I had this chance to rename the star, so I just put in my own name there because I wasn’t feeling very creative. I added the Star bit because there’s already one named like that, Barnard’s Star. Anyway, the rest is history.”

History indeed. Soon, astronomers were also reporting on the strange increase of luminosity on Spica, a binary star system and one of the brightest objects in the sky. What they found out is still a great mystery; The object seems to be sitting right between the two stars of Spica, but it doesn’t influence the stars in any way whatsoever. The thing appeared out of nowhere, and it’s five times the size of the Sun. It emits a very strong blue light, but it’s completely invisible in the infrared spectrum. It just doesn’t make any sense. And it’s Julia’s.

“The first mention was a tweet by an astronomer in Australia. She checked the coordinates in the website, and found there was already a submission for it. And them she saw the name thing, and loved it. I mean, it was funny because of my mistake on the form, but astronomers have this thing of naming stars and planets with just a bunch of letters and numbers, and suddenly there was Julia’s Star. The craziest object in the sky, showing up on the same night a star goes nova on our backyard, and this crazy lady in Poland sees it before anyone else and just calls it Julia. And, you know, it’s not even a star!”

The whole thing soon became a meme in the astronomical community. And when the press started to take notice of this other crazy thing that happened in January’s sky, they were quick to pass along the story of the Polish amateur. Science moves faster on the internet when riding a meme, as we well know here at Future Fabrication. The official, provisional name of the object is Vir 97 – the ninety-seventh object of the Virgo constellation. However, even its Wikipedia page redirects to Julia’s Star.

It’s been nine months since Vir 97 Julia’s Star appeared in the sky, and we’re still far from understanding it. Astronomers are refraining even from making educated guesses at this point; the thing challenges some fundamental notions of physics. Crazy theories abound, however, from flat-Earthers sects calling it a fracture in the great dome above Earth’s disk, to people calling it evidence of alien life. Julia’s favorite is more supernatural, though. “I love the ghost star theory! I know it’s completely nonsense, but they say it’s the ghost of a star from a previous universe! How cool is that?”

Despite all the attention they’ve been getting, no one has found signs of planets orbiting Spica or Julia’s Star, to the dismay of Julia. “I guess I got into baptizing stuff. At first I thought naming any eventual planets like Julia 1, Julia 2, etc, to keep it on brand. But then I thought better and decided to name them after the dogs in my family. There’s Bella, Basia, Aza and Fifi.”

Julia’s Star is a mystery with the potential to rewrite physics as we understand it, not to mention the greatest coincidence in the universe, showing up just as a supernova flashes the other side of the sky. Who knows how we’re going to look at the stars from now on? But I sincerely hope a Polish amateur keeps pointing her telescope above the fields behind her house, because I for one can’t wait to write about a planet called Fifi. You keep on being you, Julia.