ESO Observations Show First Interstellar Asteroid is Like Nothing Seen Before

ESO Observations Show First Interstellar Asteroid is Like Nothing Seen Before

Discovered on 19 October at the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakalā, the object, temporarily dubbed "A/2017 U1", is 400 meters in diameter and moving quickly.

At first, astronomers thought the rapidly moving faint light was a comet or an asteroid that had originated in our 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 a statement.

"This history-making discovery is opening a new window to study formation of solar systems beyond our own". There are no similarly shaped asteroids in our own solar system, and scientists are puzzled about how Oumuamua got its shape.

Immediately after its discovery, telescopes around the world, including ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile, were called into action to measure the object's orbit, brightness and color. Based on initial calculations of 'Oumuamua's orbit, astronomers had determined that it had already passed the closest point in its orbit to the Sun in September of 2017.

Dr Karen Meech, from the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii, said: "Oumuamua may well have been wandering through the Milky Way, unattached to any star system, for hundreds of millions of years before its chance encounter with the solar system". It's around ten times as long as it is wide. In fact, it's like nothing we've ever seen before.

"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".

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Now, about a month later, we have some sense of what that far-flung object looks like, and it's unlike anything we've seen in our solar system.

No doubt other asteroids have passed through our neck of the woods in the past, but this is the first time we've managed to spot such a rock, and as such, scientists are trying to learn as much as possible about Oumuamua before it disappears off into the black.

Astronomers will continue to make observations of the object before it slips back into darkness.

This research was presented in a paper entitled "A brief visit from a red and extremely elongated interstellar asteroid", by K. Meech et al., to appear in the journal Nature on 20 November 2017. Together with other large telescopes, the VLT captured images of the asteroid using its FORS instrument. We also found that it has a dark red colour, similar to objects in the outer Solar System, and confirmed that it is completely inert, without the faintest hint of dust around it. 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 big throwing knife. It brightened and dimmed dramatically by a factor of 10 every 7.3 hours.

But the object has another official name: 'Oumuamua. 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.

"We are continuing to observe this unique object", says Olivier Hainaut of ESO, "and we hope to more accurately pin down where it came from and where it is going next on its tour of the galaxy".

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