Wed, Nov 01, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Mysterious object brings clues from possibly another star system

If its origins are confirmed, the asteroid or comet, named A/2017 U1, will be the first object known to come from elsewhere in the galaxy, astronomers say

By Nicola Davis  /  The Guardian

A mysterious object detected hurtling past our sun could be the first space rock traced back to a different solar system, according to astronomers tracking the body.

While other objects have previously been suggested as having interstellar origins, experts have said the latest find, an object estimated to be less than 400m in diameter, is the best contender yet.

“The exciting thing about this is that this may be essentially a visitor from another star system,” said Edward Bloomer, the Planetarium Astronomer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

If its origins are confirmed as lying beyond our solar system, it will be the first space rock known to come from elsewhere in the galaxy.

Published in the minor planet electronic circulars by the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the observations reveal that the object is in a strong hyperbolic orbit — in other words, it is going fast enough to escape the gravitational pull of the sun.

Objects originating from, and on long-period orbits within, our solar system can end up on a hyperbolic trajectory, and be ejected into interstellar space — for example, if they swing close by a giant planet, since the planet’s gravity can cause objects to accelerate.

However, Minor Planet Center associate director Gareth Williams said that was not the case for the newly discovered body.

“When we run the orbit for this [object] back in time, it stays hyperbolic all the way out — there are no close approaches to any of the giant planets that could have given this thing a kick,” he said.

“If we follow the orbit out into the future, it stays hyperbolic,” Williams added. “So it is coming from interstellar space and it is going to interstellar space.”

“If further observations confirm the unusual nature of this orbit, this object may be the first clear case of an interstellar comet,” the report said.

A second report, published later the same day, redesignated the object as an asteroid on account of new analysis of its appearance, giving it the handle A/2017 U1.

According to observations made by astronomers, the object entered our solar system from above, passing just inside Mercury’s orbit and traveling below the sun, before turning and heading back up through the plane of the solar system toward the stars beyond.

At its closest, on Sept. 9, the object was 37.7 million kilometers from the sun.

First spotted earlier this month by a telescope at an observatory in Hawaii, astronomers around the world are now following the path of the object. Among them is Alan Fitzsimmons, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast.

“It is fairly certain we are dealing with our first truly identified alien visitor,” he said.

Fitzsimmons added that his team is currently working on measuring the objects’ position better to improve calculations of its trajectory, and to gather information related to its chemical makeup and size.

He said early results suggest that the object might be similar in makeup to many of those of the Kuiper belt — a region past Neptune in our solar system that contains myriad small bodies.

Bloomer said we should not be too surprised if it does indeed turn out to have come from elsewhere in the galaxy.

“Beyond the planets and past the Kuiper belt we think there is a region called the Oort cloud, which may be home to an astonishing number of icy bodies,” he said.

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