Tag: Oumuamua

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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Pass it on: Popular Science

NASA Reveals That Our Solar System’s First Interstellar Visitor Is Shaped Like A Cigar

A newly discovered object from another star system that’s passing through ours is shaped like a giant cigar with a reddish hue, astronomers have revealed.

The asteroid, named ‘Oumuamua by its discoverers, is up to one-quarter mile (400 meters) long and highly-elongated – perhaps 10 times as long as it is wide.

That aspect ratio is greater than that of any asteroid or comet observed in our solar system to date.

While its elongated shape is quite surprising, and unlike asteroids seen in our solar system, it may provide new clues into how other solar systems formed.

The observations and analyses were funded in part by NASA and appear in the Nov. 20 issue of the journal Nature.

They suggest this unusual object had been wandering through the Milky Way, unattached to any star system, for hundreds of millions of years before its chance encounter with our star 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 Washington.

“This history-making discovery is opening a new window to study formation of solar systems beyond our own.”

Combining the images from the FORS instrument on the ESO telescope using four different filters with those of other large telescopes.

A team of astronomers led by Karen Meech of the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii found that ‘Oumuamua varies in brightness by a factor of ten as it spins on its axis every 7.3 hours.

No known asteroid or comet from our solar system varies so widely in brightness, with such a large ratio between length and width.

The most elongated objects we have seen to date are no more than three times longer than they are wide.

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 Meech.

These properties suggest that ‘Oumuamua is dense, comprised of rock and possibly metals, has no water or ice, and that its surface was reddened due to the effects of irradiation from cosmic rays over hundreds of millions of years.

Scientists are certain this asteroid or comet originated outside our solar system.

First spotted last month by the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii, it will stick around for another few years before departing our sun’s neighborhood.

Jewitt and his international team observed the object for five nights in late October using the Nordic Optical Telescope in the Canary Islands and the Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona.

At approximately 100 feet by 100 feet by 600 feet, the object has proportions roughly similar to a fire extinguisher — though not nearly as red, Jewitt said.

The slightly red hue specifically pale pink and varying brightness are remarkably similar to asteroids in our own solar system, he noted.

In a paper to the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the scientists report that our solar system could be packed with 10,000 such interstellar travelers at any given time.

It takes 10 years to cross our solar system, providing plenty of future viewing opportunities, the scientists said.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Asteroid From Another Star System Is Unlike Anything Seen Before

The object, called ‘Oumuamua, is probably an asteroid that’s at least 10 times longer than it is wide.

Something strange sailed past Earth last month, and thanks to some quick work, astronomers managed to get their first good look at a visitor from interstellar space.

Now named ‘Oumuamua, Hawaiian for “a messenger from afar arriving first,” the object is the first known lump of rock and ice from another star system, which gives astronomers a chance to glimpse a scrap left over from an alien planet’s formation.

This has been crazy-cool. For the asteroid community, this is as big as the gravitational-wave announcement,” NASA astronomer Joseph Masiero said when the object was discovered, referencing the recent detections of ripples in space-time that have been amazing astrophysicists.

It’s extraordinarily elongated, which is extremely unusual—we don’t see anything like that in our solar system,” says study leader Karen Meech of the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy.

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Pass it on: New Scientist