Our first-ever interstellar visitor has been sighted

Cesar Mills
November 22, 2017

Now, courtesy, not of instruments on board spacecraft, but of detectors firmly based on the ground, we have observations of something that seems to be somewhere in the spectrum between comet and asteroid - but with a unusual orbit that sets it apart from any other body in the solar system. With imminent improvements to our telescopes allowing us to see smaller, fainter objects, this is unlikely to be the last time we're blown away by an interstellar visitor. NASA believes the asteroid most likely was traveling through space for millions of years before finding its way into our solar system.

Along with its technical title of 1I/2017 U1, the cosmic rock has been given the Hawaiian name of 'Oumuamua, which the university statement says "reflects the way this object is like a scout or messenger sent from the distant past to reach out to us".

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.

Well now astronomers are pretty certain that the massive object is definitely from outside of our solar system! In other words, this was an interstellar asteroid. An automated telescope spotted an object that appeared as if it had been dropped on the Solar System from above, an angle that suggests it arrived from elsewhere. But a recent one that flew through our solar system was notable for one very important reason: It came from another star!

They realised 'Oumuamua had an elongated shape after telescope observations showed the asteroid's brightness changed dramatically as it span on its axis every 7.3 hours.

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"While study of 'Oumuamua's colors shows that this body shares characteristics with both Kuiper Belt objects and organic-rich comets and trojan asteroids, its orbital path says it comes from far beyond", Dr. Meech said.

"We had to act quickly", explains team member Olivier Hainaut from ESO in Garching, Germany. "Learn more about this solid, cigar-shaped object". Together with other large telescopes, the VLT captured images of the asteroid using its FORS instrument. 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. Based on initial calculations of 'Oumuamua's orbit, astronomers had determined that it had already passed the closest point in its orbit to the Sun in September of 2017.

ESO's Karen Meech said that the asteroid is "about ten times as long as it is wide, with a complex, convoluted shape".

"We also found that it had a reddish color, similar to objects in the outer Solar System, and confirmed that it is completely inert, without the faintest hint of dust around it". It is only recently that survey telescopes like Pan-STARRS have been powerful enough to have a chance at detecting them. This very brief, nearly missed blush of the first recorded interstellar visitor might give scientists more motivation to be on the lookout for more curious objects, especially now that we have equipment powerful enough to detect them.

[1] The Pan-STARRS team's proposal to name the interstellar objet was accepted by the International Astronomical Union, which is responsible for granting official names to bodies in the Solar System and beyond.

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