Tag: interstellar space

Mysterious Interstellar Object Floating In Space Might Be Alien, Say Harvard Researchers

A graphic showing `Oumuamua’s path through the Solar System.

The head of Harvard’s department of astronomy thinks that there’s a possibility that a strange object that visited our Solar System from interstellar space may be an alien probe sent from a distant civilization.

He and a colleague outlined their idea in a paper published this week analyzing what the mysterious space object might be, setting off a media frenzy.

But let’s take a breath before we jubilantly cry “aliens.” A single idea about what this object could be doesn’t make it the only explanation, and many scientists still argue that a natural explanation is more plausible.

To add a bit of context, one of the scientists making this “exotic” claim is currently working on an initiative to look for extraterrestrial life in deep space, by sending probes from Earth to other star systems.

The paper that captured everyone’s attention is written by Harvard astrophysicists Avi Loeb and Shmuel Bialy, who tried to describe some weird behavior exhibited by a space rock called `Oumuamua.

Spotted last October, `Oumuamua is a mysterious object that is passing through our Solar System, coming from some unknown deep-space origin.

Objects like this one are thought to pass through our Solar System all the time, but this is the first exo-comet — or a comet from outside our cosmic neighborhood — that we’ve ever detected.

In addition to being a rare find, `Oumuamua is a bit bizarre. Astronomers expected a visitor of this kind to be an icy comet, surrounded by a trail of gas and dust as it passed close to the Sun.




But `Oumuamua seems to lack this kind of cloud, making it look more like an asteroid, which is mostly made of rock and metal. So no one was quite sure what this thing was — a comet, an asteroid, or something totally new.

Then after analyzing `Oumuamua’s orbit, scientists from the European Space Agency noticed that the object was accelerating, more so than it should be if it was just interacting with the gravity of the planets and Sun in our Solar System.

They concluded that `Oumuamua must be a comet; the Sun is likely heating up ice within the object, creating gas that provides an extra boost of speed.

However, Loeb and Bialy are skeptical about this “outgassing” claim, mostly because no one was able to observe gas and dust coming from `Oumuamua.

They also point to recent research from another lab, which is still under review by other scientists, that indicates that if gas were coming from this object, it would change how the rock is rotating — something that hasn’t been observed.

This rules out the possibility that it’s a comet,” Loeb said.

The comet ISON and its tail of gas and dust, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope

Of course, the possibility exists. But aliens are a very bold claim to make when natural explanations are still on the table.

I can understand the excitement, and as a scientist, I can’t sit here and say I have 100 percent evidence this was a natural object,” Fitzsimmons says. “It’s just that all the observations can be matched with a natural object.”

And that could be a problem when we actually do find signs of alien life one day.

Astronomers are finding new planets outside our Solar System all the time, and we’re working on more sophisticated technology to peer into the atmospheres of these worlds.

One day, we may find solid evidence that life exists in deep space, but it may be hard for the public to swallow if they think aliens have already been discovered.

I don’t want people to think we already saw that when it actually happens,” says Mack. “I want people not to be super cynical about claims about aliens by the time we actually have something that is really solid evidence.”

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According To NASA, Voyager 2 May Be Leaving the Solar System Soon

This NASA diagram illustrates the hypothesized positions of Voyagers 1 and 2 in the solar system as of October 2018. Voyager 1 reached interstellar space in 2012. Voyager 2 may soon hit that milestone.

Want to get away? Want to get far, far away? Voyager 2 has you beat: The spacecraft, launched in 1977, is approaching the edge of the solar system, according to a NASA statement released today (Oct. 5).

That announcement is based on two different instruments on board, which in late August began noticing a small uptick in how many cosmic rays — superfast particles pummeling the solar system from outer space — were hitting the spacecraft.

That matches pretty well with what Voyager 1 began experiencing about three months before its own grand departure in 2012, but scientists can’t be sure of the milestone until after it has been passed.

We’re seeing a change in the environment around Voyager 2, there’s no doubt about that,” Voyager Project Scientist Ed Stone, a physicist at Caltech, said in the statement.




We’re going to learn a lot in the coming months, but we still don’t know when we’ll reach the heliopause. We’re not there yet — that’s one thing I can say with confidence.

The team behind Voyager 2 knows that the spacecraft is currently almost 11 billion miles (17.7 billion kilometers) away from Earth.

But it’s hard to predict when the spacecraft will actually leave the solar system by passing through what scientists call the heliopause.

The heliopause is the bubble around our solar system formed by the solar wind, the rush of charged particles that constantly streams off our sun.

The rate of energetic interstellar particles detected by Voyager 2 started to rise at the end of August 2018. Each point represents a 6-hour average.

But that solar wind ebbs and flows over the course of the sun’s 11-year cycle, which means that the bubble of our solar system itself expands and contracts.

And because Voyager 2 isn’t following precisely in its predecessor’s steps, scientists aren’t positive that its cosmic exit will result in identical changes to the data that the spacecraft reports.

So until Voyager 2 passes through the heliopause, there’s no way to be sure precisely where it is with regard to the heliopause.

Whenever it does successfully flee the solar system, Voyager 2 will become just the second human-made object to do so.

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Astronomers Race To Study A Mystery Object From Outside Our Solar System

For the first time that we know, an interstellar visitor has zoomed through our solar system.

The small space rock, tentatively called A/2017 U1, is about a quarter of a mile long and astronomers across the world are racing to study it before it departs just as quickly as it arrived.

We’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Rob Weryk, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy.

On Oct. 19, Dr. Weryk was reviewing images captured by the university’s Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on the island of Maui when he came across the object.

At first he thought it was a type of space rock known as a near earth object, but he realized its motion did not make sense. It was much faster than any asteroid or comet he had seen before.

He quickly realized that it was not of this solar system. “It’s moving so fast that the Sun can’t capture it into an orbit,” Dr. Weryk said.




After contacting a colleague at the European Space Agency to discuss the find, he submitted it to the Minor Planet Center, which tracks objects in the solar system, to share with other astronomers.

I was not expecting to see anything like this during my career, even though we knew it was possible and that these objects exist,” said Davide Farnocchia, a navigational engineer with NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Astronomers had predicted such an occurrence, but this is the first time that it has been recorded. For the past few days Dr. Farnocchia has been calculating the strange object’s path.

It was obvious that the object has a hyperbolic orbit,” he said, meaning that its trajectory is open-ended rather than elliptical like the objects in our solar system.

That shows that it came from outside the solar system and will leave the solar system.

The object came closest to the Sun on Sept. 9, at a distance of about 23 million miles. With a boost from the star’s gravity, it zoomed by at about 55 miles per second with respect to the Sun, Dr. Farnocchia said.

Then on Oct. 14 the object came within about 15 million miles of Earth, zipping by at about 37 miles per second, with respect to the Earth.

That’s more than three times as much velocity as the escape trajectory for the New Horizons spacecraft, which completed a flyby of Pluto in 2015, he said.

Now it’s moving away at about 25 miles per second, he said, and will exit the solar system at about 16 miles per second.

That is faster than the current velocity of the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which became the first spacecraft from Earth to enter interstellar space in August 2012.

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