First interstellar visitor described as an 'oddball'

Unique cigar-shaped object is first interstellar asteroid

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. But it is the first to ever be spotted and confirmed to be of interstellar origin, and observation of the asteroid has granted new insight into how other solar systems might be formed. They had to be speedy, given that the object is now moving 95,000 kilometres per hour and heading away from the sun.

"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 from the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii. It's dark and reddened surface is also an indication of tholins, which are the result of organic molecules (like methane) being irradiated by cosmic rays for millions of years.

"We also found that it had a reddish colour, similar to objects in the outer solar system, and confirmed that it is completely inert, without the faintest hint of dust around it".

'Oumuamua's brightness has also varied by a factor of 10 throughout its 7.3-hour cycles of spinning on its axis, unique among any known comet or asteroid and another sign of its long form. It could be up to 10 times as long as it is wide - a shape never before seen in an asteroid.

Though this was the first time astronomers have spotted an interstellar visitor, they're likely not uncommon.

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Years ago, before the era of high definition camera smartphones and when The X-Files ruled television, amateur alien-hunters produced plenty of blurry photographs of cigar-shaped objects that were, it was widely believed (at least in some circles) evidence of UFOs, and visitors from beyond the furthest reaches of space.

So what is it? The presence of 'Oumuamua suggests that previous estimates of the density of interstellar objects were pessimistically low. The Hawaiian name, partly coming because of the location of the telescope that discovered it, loosely means "a messenger that reaches out from the distant past". And now that we have found the first interstellar rock, we are getting ready for the next ones! "This history-making discovery is opening a new window to study formation of solar systems beyond our own".

Because the object was flying away from the sun back into deep space at a fast clip-a cool 64,000 kilometers per hour (40,000 mph)-they flagged astronomers over in Arizona and the European Space Agency in Germany to take a quick look and double-check their calculations and confirm that its orbit wasn't following anything else in our solar system. '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.

Because of its speed, if this type of interstellar object were to crash into Earth, it would have a much greater impact and create more energy than an object from our solar 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.



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