First Interstellar Asteroid Has An Incredibly Odd Shape

Posted: Nov 24 2017, 5:36pm CST | by , Updated: Nov 24 2017, 5:42pm CST, in News | Latest Science News

 
First Interstellar Asteroid has an Incredibly Odd Shape
Credits: European Southern Observatory/M. Kornmesser

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New data reveal that the newly discovered asteroid is a rocky, cigar-shaped object with a somewhat reddish hue

Back in October, a mysterious interstellar object flew past the Earth. Thanks to the observations from ESO's Very Large Telescope and other telescopes around the world, astronomers have been able to get a close look at that first object coming from outside the solar system.

Observations reveal that the mysterious object is indeed an asteroid and rather oddly shaped. It is dark, rocky and metallic and resembles a cigar. The asteroid is unlike anything previously seen in our solar system.

Designated 1I/2017 U1 or Oumuamua, the body is less than half a kilometer long and barely bright enough to be detected by ground-based observatories. It travelled through the space for hundreds of millions of years before it entered our solar system. This is the first confirmed object from outside the solar system.

“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 Washington. “This history-making discovery is opening a new window to study formation of solar systems beyond our own.”

Oumuamua was first detected on October 19th, 2017, by using University of Hawaii's Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS). Initially, it looked like a typical fast-moving small asteroid or comet found in our solar system. But additional observations revealed that the object did not originate from inside the Solar System. Instead, it belonged to interstellar space.

Previously known as A/2017 U1, the object is now classified as an interstellar asteroid and is renamed Oumuamua – a Hawaiian-based word meaning a messenger reaching out from the distant past.

Soon after the discovery, ESO's Very Large Telescope was called into action to measure the asteroid's size, brightness, composition, color and orbit. It turned out that the newly-discovered asteroid is a totally different kind of object. It is travelling extremely fast, at a speed of 26 km/s. This is much faster than any spacecraft ever launched into space.

The asteroid also varies dramatically in brightness. Observations of the asteroid's orbit suggest that it made its closest pass to our Sun back in September of 2017 and it is currently heading back to interstellar space.

“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,” said Karen Meech of the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii. “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.”

Astronomers are continuing to observe the unique asteroid. So, they can more accurately pin down its location and next destination.

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