WHAT’S BEING CLAIMED:
- The Earth’s orbit has been entered by its first-ever visitor from a different solar system.
- The “alien”, which looks like a giant reddish elongated rock, is actually an asteroid at least the size of a football field.
- The interstellar visitor was first spotted last month by a group of astronomers at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy and now have published a paper on the discovery in the journal Nature Letters.
An international team of astronomers led by Karen Meech has published a detailed measurement of the interstellar visitor, now called ‘Oumuamua. Originally labeled A/2017 (A for Asteroid), it was first spotted by the University of Hawaii’s telescope in October.
“This thing is very strange,” Meech said in a press release. That’s because the interstellar object is much more elongated compared to any of the asteroids astronomers have discovered to date.
‘Oumuamua caught the scientists’ attention due to its weird path. They were also drawn by the weird pattern of blinking light they saw that the asteroid made every three and a half hours or so. The pattern was far more dramatic than they’ve seen from other space objects. They figured out that it was because ‘Oumuamua is about 10 times longer than it is wide, meaning it has more reflective area.
“What we found was a rapidly rotating object, at least the size of a football field, that changed in brightness quite dramatically. This change in brightness hints that ‘Oumuamua could be more than 10 times longer than it is wide—something which has never been seen in our own solar system,” Meech said.
The published paper is based on observations made by astronomers from around the world using telescopes in Hawaii and Chile. In the early stages of the observations, scientists discovered that the object was following a path unlike others ever spotted before. The object also seemed to have come from another solar system, the first of its kind we’ve ever detected.
‘Oumuamua looks like any average asteroid that astronomers have spotted to date. But, according to the new paper: “It’s moving a lot faster than asteroids from within our solar system. That means that if, by a stroke of very bad luck, it were to hit Earth, the collision would be more violent than previous impacts, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.”
Scientists also report that if there’s an object from beyond our solar system traveling within the Earth’s orbit, it means there could be more observations of similar “visitors” to come.
“The discovery of A/2017 U1 suggests that previous estimates of the density of interstellar objects were pessimistically low,” the team writes in Nature Letters.
With the most advanced asteroid-observing technology on the way, the future looks bright for scientists to help them make the most of the coming opportunities.