'Unknown object' hurtling through our solar system

Terry Joseph
October 29, 2017

An object that isn't acting like most other objects in space has been picked up by a telescope in Hawaii that takes images for NASA.

The object - believed to be either a comet or asteroid - appears to have originated outside of our solar system, offering the first proof that trans-solar system objects exist, NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies manager Paul Chodas said.

The rules for naming the interstellar objects need to be formulated by the International Astronomical Union as A/2017 U1 is the first one observed by astronomers. Astronomers are now working to point telescopes towards the object to obtain more data. "Once this data is obtained and analysed, astronomers may know more about the origin and possibly composition of the object".

Although the new object was identified on October 19 by University of Hawaii postdoctoral researcher Rob Weryk, astronomers can calculate where the object was even before its discovery. Weryk then searches the Pan-STARRS image archive and finds it also in the picture taken the night before, but was not originally identified by moving object processing. Marco Micheli had made his observations using the European Space Agency's telescope on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. But with the combined data, everything makes sense.

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"It's going very fast and like a trajectory we can say with confidence that this thing is on its way out of the solar system and does not come back", he explained.

It has the "most extreme" orbit that NASA scientist Davide Farnocchia has ever seen. "What's most surprising is that we've never seen interstellar objects pass through before", said Karen Meech, an astronomer at UH's Institute for Astronomy in Honolulu specializing in small bodies and their connection to solar system formation. Their biggest clue is its hyperbolic orbit: rather than endlessly circling the sun in an ellipse, the object's path extends into the unknown far beyond our solar system. On September 2, the small body crossed under the ecliptic plane just inside of Mercury's orbit and then made its closest approach to the Sun on September 9. Tugged by the sun's gravity, it reversed course and hurtled back above the elliptic at an angle, passing about 15 million miles from Earth on October 14. It began traveling back above the plane and is making its way toward the Pegasus constellation.

Animation showing the path of A/2017 U1 through the solar system. The researchers, who were searching for near-Earth objects for NASA, had found the high-speed object which was less than a quarter-mile (400 meters) in diameter.

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