Cigar-shaped asteroid found to be interstellar, unlike bodies in our solar system

Delia Watkins
November 22, 2017

The object in question was spotted last month by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii.

"This unusually large variation in brightness means that the object is highly elongated: about ten times as long as it is wide, with a complex, convoluted shape", astronomer Karen Meech said.

That has led scientists to speculate that the asteroid is an interstellar wanderer that has stumbled across our solar system. NASA believes the asteroid most likely was traveling through space for millions of years before finding its way into our solar system.

Not only that, they think that it could be one of 10,000 other alien rocks that could be zooming around, undetected in our solar neighbourhood.

"For decades we've theorised that such interstellar objects are out there, and now - for the first time - we have direct evidence they exist", said astrophysicist Thomas Zurbuchen from NASA.

A closer study of the trajectory confirmed that 'Oumuamua was on an open-ended parabolic trajectory and was making its first and only visit to the Solar System. ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) was tasked with measuring the object's brightness, color, and speed as it cruised away from Earth.

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But the object has another name in Hawaiin language: Oumuamua, meaning a "messenger sent from the distant past to reach out to us", according to the study. No other comet or asteroid in the Solar System varies so widely in brightness. The roughly quarter-mile-long asteroid was initially thought to be a comet, but the absence of water ice as it neared the sun dismissed that theory.

Follow-up observations, detailed today in Nature, have found that the asteroid is dark and reddish, similar to the objects in the outer Solar System. 'Oumuamua shows that the same could be possible in other solar systems. Being the first asteroid from interstellar space, the asteroid is also the first to receive the new interstellar object designation.

In October 2017, astronomers were surprised by an asteroid that came racing into our Solar System from interstellar space. The asteroid has been moving at an impressive speed of 59,000 miles an hour, per the release, and came from the same direction as Vega, a bright star once featured in the famous sci-fi film Contact.

However, even traveling at a breakneck speed of about 59,030 miles per hour (95,000 km/hour), it took so long for the interstellar object to make the journey to our Solar System that Vega was not near that position when the asteroid was there about 300,000 years ago. "This serendipitous discovery is bonus science enabled by NASA's efforts to find, track and characterize near-Earth objects that could potentially pose a threat to our planet".

The new paper is based on observations taken by telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, with astronomers from institutions around the world chipping in.

"We are continuing to observe this unique object", says Olivier Hainaut of ESO, "and we hope to more accurately pin down where it came from and where it is going next on its tour of the galaxy". So we should probably expect many more of these interstellar visitors to get spotted now we are looking for them.

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