A bizarre shaped asteroid, which is believed to have interstellar origins, was recently observed by a team of astronomers at the Pan-STARRS 1 observatory on Haleakala, Hawaii, during a routine search of the skies for near-Earth objects on behalf of NASA.
Being among the first to spot this freak asteroid from outside our solar system, they have christened it OUMUAMUA, which in Hawaiian means a first messenger from far away.
Rob Weryk, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IfA), said, “Its motion could not be explained using either a normal solar system asteroid or comet orbit.”
Further inspection of follow-up images from the European Space Agency’s telescope on Tenerife in the Canary Islands revealed to IfA graduate Marco Micheli that there was, indeed, something unusual about the object.
Combining the data from both centers made it evident that it was an interstellar intruder – an alien asteroid from beyond our solar system.
“This object came from outside our solar system,” said Weryk.
Davide Farnocchia, a scientist at NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, noted that the orbit of the object was “most extreme,” the likes of which he had never seen before.
“It is going extremely fast and on such a trajectory that we can say with confidence that this object is on its way out of the solar system and not coming back,” he said.
Estimated to be a quarter of a mile long, which is ten times its width, OUMUAMUA is dark reddish in color and elongated in shape, somewhat like a cigar, with no gas or dust surrounding it.
“What we found was a rapidly rotating object, at least the size of a football field, that changed in brightness quite dramatically,” Karen Meech said in a statement. She is the lead study author and leader of the research team at the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Astronomy.
According to NASA, the findings “suggest that ‘Oumuamua is dense, comprised of rock and possibly metals, has no water or ice, and that its surface was reddened due to the effects of irradiation from cosmic rays over hundreds of millions of years.”
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has classified OUMUAMUA under a new designation, I1/2017 U1, created after the discovery.
Meanwhile, based on their study of I1/2017 U1’s trajectory, the CNEOS team has concluded that the object came from the direction of the constellation Lyra traveling through space at 85,700 miles per hour.
Ever since its discovery on October 19, dozens of observatories with high-powered telescopes around the world have scrambled to track this mysterious blast from the interstellar past in order to learn as much about it as possible, before it leaves our solar system on its way to the Pegasus constellation.
“It’s really getting much too faint to do anything at all,” Meech said.
As of now, I1/2017 U11 is about 124 million miles away from Earth – a distance which is increasing with every passing second – traveling at a velocity of 85,700 miles per hour. It zoomed past the orbit of Mars on November 1st. Its present trajectory should see it reach Jupiter’s orbit in May 2018, and by January 2019, it is expected to pass Saturn before exiting our solar system altogether.
“We are fortunate that our sky survey telescope was looking in the right place at the right time to capture this historic moment,” NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson said in a statement. “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.”
“For decades we’ve theorized that such interstellar objects are out there, and now — for the first time — we have direct evidence they exist,” the Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, said in a statement. “This history-making discovery is opening a new window to study formation of solar systems beyond our own.”
“We are continuing to observe this unique object,” said Olivier Hainaut, one of the study authors from the European Southern Observatory. “And we hope to more accurately pin down where it came from and where it is going next on its tour of the galaxy. And now that we have found the first interstellar rock, we are getting ready for the next ones!”
Some related tweets
Discussion of imagined sci-fi “origins” of interstellar asteroid #Oumuamua (A-2017-U1) reminds me of paper I developed a few years ago while at @SpaceWorksSEI: “Dyson Asteroid Shells: Hollow Worlds from the Outside-In” https://t.co/ynIths7RC4 pic.twitter.com/QfvZREfX0W
— A.C. Charania (@ac_charania) November 21, 2017
The interstellar asteroid, #Oumuamua is only going through a chance visit in Solar System – it is already leaving at a high speed.
Such objects visit Solar System once in every year but their detection has been very difficult without powerful modern sky surveys. pic.twitter.com/DV7hdHXX06
— Mikko Tuomi, Astronomer, Scientist, Human (@mustapipa) November 20, 2017
All Hail #Oumuamua! First Space Rock of her Name, Deliverer of Interstellar Knowledge.
Watch it fly through our Solar System (animated): https://t.co/3aecdvknNr
— Steve Spaleta (@stevespaleta) November 20, 2017
— The Ottawa Ross (@ottaross) November 21, 2017
What a time to be alive. The interstellar asteroid #Oumuamua is briefly crossing our solar system before it passes again into darkness. It is the first interstellar visitor known to our science. https://t.co/BUb0WqARgi
— Geoffrey Bates (@geoffb28926081) November 20, 2017
Alien 1: “Receiving communications proving the species on Earth have given total leadership of their planet and control of their entire arsenal to one completely lacking intelligence.”
Alien 2: “All hope is lost for them. Launch #Oumuamua.”
— Mo Fei Chen (@DynaMoChen) November 20, 2017