Scientists dazzled by solar system's first-known interstellar visitor

Nov 25, 2017, 01:53
Scientists dazzled by solar system's first-known interstellar visitor

The U.S. space agency says that the asteroid could be 10 times as long as it is wide, and that Oumuamua has traveled unattached through the Milky Way for hundreds of millions of years before its discovery. The aspect ratio of up to 10:1 is unlike that of any object seen in our own solar system.

For the first time ever astronomers have studied an asteroid that has entered the Solar System from interstellar space.

Pan-STARRS 1 - a telescope in Hawaii created to find near-Earth objects - spotted the asteroid on October 19. Calculations suggested it might be an interstellar interloper, and scientists announced Monday they have confirmed it came from outside our solar system.

'Oumuamua is a Hawaiian word which means a messenger or scout.

"This thing is an oddball", said Karen Meech from the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy, leader of an global team studying 'Oumuamua.

The asteroid also varies dramatically in brightness. But even at speeds of 140 thousand km per hour, it took so much time to reach our solar system of VEGA, which was not in the same position as 300,000 years ago.

The asteroid's properties suggest it could have a high metal content and lacks significant amounts of water or ice. Analysis of its speed and trajectory confirmed that it had come from another star and had likely been adrift in interstellar space for hundreds of millions of years (at least) before encountering our star system. Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the release. Credit: ESO/K. Meech et al.

'Oumuamua appears to be a dark red, elongated metallic or rocky object, measuring about 400 meters long. "That's a very unusual shape". Spectroscopic measurements show that the object's surface is consistent with comets or organic-rich asteroid surfaces found in our own Solar System. Our observations reveal the object to be asteroidal, with no hint of cometary activity despite an approach within 0.25 au of the Sun.

As a result, they are the first to publish their results-"A brief visit from a red and extremely elongated interstellar asteroid"-appearing in the online issue of the journal Nature on November 20".

This artist's illustration shows the asteroid's high-elongated shape. Anyone read the sci-fi novel'Rendezvous with Rama'? Credit ESO  M. Kornmesser
This artist's illustration shows the asteroid's high-elongated shape. Anyone read the sci-fi novel'Rendezvous with Rama'? Credit ESO M. Kornmesser

Astronomers believe the asteroid to be a dark, reddish colour. NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson said, "We are fortunate that our sky survey telescope was looking in the right place at the right time to capture this historic moment".

On studying the interstellar asteroid with the FORS instrument on the ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile, its "light-curve" revealed something truly freaky. Its last known location was approximately 200 million kilometers from Earth. Observations of the asteroid's orbit suggest that it made its closest pass to our Sun back in September of 2017 and it is now heading back to interstellar space.

This discovery is monumental to the science community because it is the first detection of a celestial object in our solar system that has originated from a different solar system.

'Oumuamua made its closest approach to Earth on October 14 - before its discovery - at a distance of about 15 million miles (24 million kilometers), or around 60 times the distance between the Earth and the moon. "This thing is very odd", said Meech.

Olivier Hainaut of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) said, "We had to act quickly".

ESO's Very Large Telescope was immediately called into action to measure the object's orbit, brightness and colour more accurately than smaller telescopes could achieve. And now that we have found the first interstellar rock, we are getting ready for the next ones! Oumuamua's discovery marks the first identification of an interstellar object and may mean that such objects are also found in other parts of our Solar System.

But 'Oumuamua's discovery did pose a nomenclature dilemma.

With the rapid improvement of instruments and of processing techniques in the field of astronomy, researchers are expected to detect other interstellar objects soon.

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