What would an object visiting from outside of our solar system look like? Astronomers now have one answer to this question: like a spinning cigar.
At first, astronomers thought the rapidly moving faint light was a comet or an asteroid that had originated in our solar system. But based on its orbit, the astronomers realized that the object came from interstellar space.
They acted fast, and multiple telescopes focused on the object for three nights to determine what it was before it moved out of sight at 85,700 miles per hour.
A messenger from beyond
“What we found was a rapidly rotating object, at least the size of a football field, that changed in brightness quite dramatically,” said lead study author Karen Meech, of the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Astronomy and leader of the research team, in a statement.
The long and rocky cigar-shaped object has a burnt dark-reddish hue due to millions of years of radiation from cosmic rays. This hue is similar to that of objects found in the Kuiper Belt, in the outer part of our solar system, but its orbit and shape firmly place it in the category of interstellar origin. It most likely has a high metal content and spins on its ownaxis every 7.3 hours.
But the shape, 10 times as long as it is wide, has never been seen before. This complex and convoluted shape means the object varies incredibly in brightness.
The most elongated objects astronomers had previously seen were only three times longer than their width.
So what is it? The object is the first to be named an interstellar asteroid, officially designated A/2017 UI by the International Astronomical Union, which created the category after it was discovered.
But the object has another official name: ‘Oumuamua. 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.”
“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.”
But where did it come from?
Astronomers know that when our solar system was forming, it effectively spit out comets and asteroids because of the orbits of the largest planets. So it would stand to reason that other planetary systems are sending the same remnants our way. …
The images above are only an artist’s concept based on the data. Here is what we could see
It came in and flew by our sun, perhaps a probe charging its batteries.
There is no indication that we will ever cross paths with Oumuamua again: it came in to say hello and was slingshot back out of our solar system by our sun’s gravity. Perhaps as the Milky Way galaxy is eaten by the Andromeda galaxy, in about 4 billion years, we will have many more of these visitors. What should we call the new galaxy? Will Milkdromeda bring new planets? This may be something like what you’d see if the earth were not toasted by our expanding sun (we think it will be) in about 4 billion years. Quite a view!
In fact, our solar system is going to outlive our galaxy. At that point, the sun will not yet be a red giant star – but it will have grown bright enough to roast Earth’s surface. Any life forms still there, though, will be treated to some pretty spectacular cosmic choreography.
By that time it is likely that we will not need a sun’s energy to survive and that we will have large ships capable of deep space travel.