ESO: First Observed Interstellar Asteroid Is Incredibly Long, Has Red Color

ESO: First Observed Interstellar Asteroid Is Incredibly Long, Has Red Color

For the first time ever, astronomers have discovered an asteroid that's entered our solar system from interstellar space.

Traveling at high speed and originating from interstellar space, this object was originally thought to be an ancient comet, but observations revealed it was, in fact, an asteroid from another star system. It initially looked like a typical fast-moving small asteroid, but additional observations over the next couple of days allowed its orbit to be computed fairly accurately. Most objects astronomers observe in our solar system are roughly spherical, drawn into a ball by gravity. Our observations reveal the object to be asteroidal, with no hint of cometary activity despite an approach within 0.25 au of the Sun.

This diagram shows the orbit of the interstellar asteroid Oumuamua as it passes through the solar system.

The orbit of I1/2017U1. ESO  K. Meech et al. CC BY-SA
The orbit of I1/2017U1. ESO K. Meech et al. CC BY-SA

Immediately after 'Oumuamua's discovery early this November, telescopes around the world were called into action to study the object more closely. There were more surprises to come.

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

The hunk rock of that whipped through the solar system in October looks like no other asteroid we've seen before, they say, long and thin like a javelin and colored red from millions of years of accumulated radiation exposure.

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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", says Meech, "its orbital path says it comes from far beyond". Apparently, this asteroid is long and skinny, much like a cigar, and is spinning constantly as it travels, as if some otherworldly explosion or cataclysmic event picked up the little rock and tossed it out across the galaxy like a huge throwing knife.

Based on preliminary calculations of its orbit, astronomers have deduced that it came from the general direction of Vega, the brightest star in the northern constellation of Lyra.

Observations suggest the object had been wandering through the Milky Way, unattached to any star system, for hundreds of millions of years. No other comet or asteroid in the Solar System varies so widely in brightness. It is only recently that survey telescopes, such as Pan-STARRS, are powerful enough to have a chance to discover them.

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"For decades we've theorized that such interstellar objects are out there, and now - for the first time - we have direct evidence they exist", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, in a statement.

But the object has another official name: 'Oumuamua. The name is Hawaiian and more details are given here. According to NASA, the interstellar asteroid is a "rocky, cigar-shaped object with a somewhat reddish hue". The correct forms for referring to this object are now: 1I, 1I/2017 U1, 1I/'Oumuamua and 1I/2017 U1 ('Oumuamua).

"Certainly this is a new type of object".

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Meech and an worldwide research team published their findings Monday in the journal Nature with the title "A brief visit from a red and extremely elongated interstellar asteroid".

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