- A possible interstellar object discovered on Oct. 14 has the astronomy community abuzz with excitement.
- Scientists are not yet sure if the rock that measures a quarter-mile in diameter is an asteroid or a comet.
- The object is moving remarkably fast, scientists note.
The discovery of an object that buzzed Earth last week and may be of interstellar origin has caused a flurry of excitement among astronomers.
According to Sky and Telescope, thousands of comets and asteroids have been observed by researchers for centuries, all of them originating from our solar system. It’s a different story for the new object temporarily dubbed the A/2017 U1, which was captured earlier this month by the PanSTARRS 1 telescope located on Hawaii’s Haleakala Mountain. Scientists say the extreme, almost perpendicular orbit of the object indicates it is not tied to the sun and likely originated from outside our galaxy.
If the scientists’ suspicions prove to be true, it would be the first observed interstellar object.
“We have long suspected that these objects should exist because, during the process of planet formation, a lot of material should be ejected from planetary systems. What’s most surprising is that we’ve never seen interstellar objects pass through before,” Karen Meech, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IfA), which specializes in small bodies and their connection to how the solar system formed, said in a NASA press release.
Instead of originating from our solar system, the piece of rock that is about a quarter of a mile in diameter appears to have escaped from another star, according to a study published Wednesday by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center (MPC).
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” Rob Weryk, an astronomer at the IfA, told the New York Times. Weryk was the first to notice the object on Oct. 19 while reviewing images captured by the PanSTARRS telescope. He reported it to the Minor Planet Center, which ignited a flurry of activity as astronomers scurried to collect data in order to better understand the object.
One of the more striking characteristics of the object is the speed at which it is traveling: roughly 97,200 mph.
“It’s moving so fast that the sun can’t capture it into an orbit,” Dr. Weryk said.
The object passed within 15 million miles of Earth on Oct. 14 and captured a lot of attention worldwide as scientists tried to determine if the object demonstrated the characteristics of a comet.
“This is the most extreme orbit I have ever seen,” Davide Farnocchia, a scientist at NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in the NASA statement. “It is going extremely fast and on such a trajectory that we can say with confidence that this object is on its way out of the solar system and not coming back.”
According to NASA, rules for naming the object will need to be established by the International Astronomical Union since this is likely the first of its kind ever discovered.
“We have been waiting for this day for decades,” CNEOS Manager Paul Chodas said. “It’s long been theorized that such objects exist — asteroids or comets moving around between the stars and occasionally passing through our solar system — but this is the first such detection. So far, everything indicates this is likely an interstellar object, but more data would help to confirm it.”
Telescopes the world over are now being turned toward the object to collect as much data as possible before it leaves our solar system, because once it goes, it’s gone for good, astronomers say.