The first object ever known to enter our solar system from beyond is not your average asteroid or comet.
We all know what asteroids and comets look like, right? Well the thing that came hurtling into our solar system from interstellar space in mid-October does not look like that.
Originally known as A2017 U1, the odd object from beyond was first discovered by Karen Meech and her team from University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy, using the Pan-STARRS1 survey telescope on Haleakala in Hawai'i. Now given the more poetic Hawaiian name of 'Oumuamua – which loosely means "a messenger that reaches out from the distant past” – the interspace guest was only about 85 times the Earth-Moon distance away when it was first observed.Now that the researchers have had more time to study it using the Gemini Observatory, they have determined that it is indeed unlike anything we would expect from our own little corner of the universe.
"This thing is an oddball," says Meech in a statement from Gemini.
"What we found was a rapidly rotating object, at least the size of a football field, that changed in brightness quite dramatically," she says. "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."
"While study of 'Oumuamua's colors shows that this body shares characteristics with both Kuiper Belt objects and organic-rich comets and trojan asteroids," says Meech, "its orbital path says it comes from far beyond."
While 'Oumuamua has quickly slipped away form view, loads of data was collected and it gives scientists a rare glimpse into the rocky flying things (scientific term there, really) of other worlds
"These observations allow us to reach into another planetary system to learn about one of its rocky bodies, and compare this object with the asteroids we know throughout our own Solar System," says Faith Vilas from the National Science Foundation.
And fortunately for all fans of oddball interstellar interlopers, there will likely be news of more in the near future. The authors of the study describing 'Oumuamua write that “Imminent upgrades to contemporary asteroid survey instruments and improved data processing techniques are likely to produce more interstellar objects in the upcoming years.”
The research paper, A brief visit from a red and extremely elongated interstellar asteroid, was published in Nature.
Watch an artist's video representation and listen to the excited scientists at NASA's JPL talk about the quirky rock in the video below.