Published: Fri, October 27, 2017
Science | By Hubert Green

NASA tracking mysterious object from outside our solar system

NASA tracking mysterious object from outside our solar system

A/2017 U1's slingshot route suggests it is a recent visitor to the solar system - and is now on its way out again.

Animation showing the path of A/2017 U1 through the solar system. It's thought the object could be made up of a conglomerate of space particles. It had also passed under Earth orbit on October 14 at a distance of about 15 million miles (24 million Km), at a distance which is 60 times the distance between Earth and Moon.

Researchers at NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS), located at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), confirmed the interstellar origin of the object, designated A/ 2017 U1 based on its highly unusual orbit. (NASA has prepared this nice visualization of the object's path.) On 9 September, it made its closest approach to the sun, with gravity then tugging it on a route "under" the solar system. "What's most surprising is that we've never seen interstellar objects pass through before", said the Astronomy Institute of University of Hawaii's Karen Meech.

The university said initial data implies it is a small rocky or icy object that may have been drifting through our galaxy for millions or even billions of years, before entering our solar system by chance.

CNEOS scientists subsequently analyzed its past and future trajectories, discovering it came from the direction of the constellation Lyra at a speed of 15.8 miles (25.5 km) per second and is headed on a one-way journey out of the solar system toward the constellation Pegasus, now traveling at 27 miles (44 km) per second. Now, astronomers are trying to direct as many significant telescopes towards the object, in the hopes of better understanding it.

Rob Weryk said, "Its motion could not be explained using either a normal solar system asteroid or comet orbit".

Around the world, telescopes are swiveling to welcome, and then wave farewell to, a new guest to the solar system: a fast-moving asteroid, or potentially a comet.

The object flew into the solar system from above, was close to the sun last month, and is now already on its way back out to the stars.

The object, which will be known as "A/2017 U1" until naming rules for its type are established, came into the solar system directly "above" the ecliptic, an approximate plane where most local objects orbit the sun.

"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".

Paul Chodas, CNEOS Manager said, "We have been waiting for this day for decades". A week ago, on 19 October, he first spotted the object using Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope, which searches the sky for near-Earth objects, but didn't make much sense of the data.

The astronomers noticed that the same object was captured in the images obtained in the previous night as well, but the automatic moving object detection did not flag the asteroid or comet.

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