Published: Wed, November 22, 2017
Sci-tech | By Jackie Newman

First interstellar asteroid reveals its secrets

First interstellar asteroid reveals its secrets

On October 19, the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii spotted something odd zooming through our solar system.

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.

They also calculate that at any given time, there's an object about 800 feet across born beyond our solar system hanging out within Earth's orbital range.

Interstellar asteroids are believed to pass through the inner solar system once a year but are generally very hard to spot, which makes 'Oumuamua pretty special.

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. It's also pink, likely from years of getting bombarded with cosmic radiation as it wanders, untethered to a group of planets gravitationally chained to a star, throughout the universe.

But there's one more piece of discovery in the new paper: it's moving a lot faster than asteroids from within our solar system.

Researchers used measurements from ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile to study the object - which is dark, reddish, rocky or high-metal-content object, about 1,200ft long. In addition to the technical name, the Pan-STARRS team dubbed it 'Oumuamua (pronounced oh MOO-uh MOO-uh), which is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first".

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system as seen on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak Ariz. Credit WIYN OBSERVATORY  RALF KOTULLA
ESO: First Observed Interstellar Asteroid Is Incredibly Long, Has Red Color

That ratio is more extreme than that of any asteroid or comet ever observed in our Solar System.

Using robotic telescopes, the astronomers are also concentrating on discovering potentially unsafe objects that could impact Earth. While that might be true in terms of the object's composition, calculations of its orbit revealed that it could not have come from our own solar system.

But in the next few years, we may be able to spot more interstellar objects like 'Oumuamua.

However, even travelling at an incredible speed of 95,000 kilometres per hour (59,000 miles per hour), it would have taken 300,000 years to reach Earth from Vega - and Vega wasn't in the same place 300,000 years ago. 'Oumuamua is an asteroid that briefly visited our solar system - but it's not like any asteroid we've ever seen before. "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".

The asteroid is now heading towards Jupiter and is predicted to leave our solar system in 2019, continuing its long journey towards the Pegasus constellation.

"We are continuing to observe this unique object, and we hope to more accurately pin down where it came from and where it is going next on its tour of the galaxy", observation team member Olivier Hainaut, from ESO in Garching, Germany, said in the ESO statement. Based on what we know about 'Oumuamua (pronounced "HO-u-mua-mua"), the name seems fitting. As it appears this isn't the case, the chances are that there are lots more interstellar rocks in the Solar System than we thought.

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