Binary system ejected huge 'spliff' asteroid, boffins reckon

Terry Joseph
March 23, 2018

The interstellar object was named 11/2017 or "Oumuamua" that means "scout" in Hawaiian.

The solar system's first-documented interstellar visitor, 'Oumuamua, likely began its journey in a binary star system, new research suggests. They've also determined that 'Oumuamua may have been ejected during the formation of the planets in that system. The object undertook a trajectory with an eccentricity of 1.2 which is an open-ended hyperbolic orbit while transiting at the speed of 30 km per second.

Astronomers testing how efficiently binary systems can eject bodies through gravitational interactions found that rocky objects like 'Oumuamua are much more likely to originate in binary systems and that ejected rocky bodies should be just as common as brighter, easier-to-spot icy comets. They also concluded that it likely came from a system with a relatively hot, high mass star since such a system would have a greater number of rocky objects closer in.

It was discovered by Robert Weryk using Pan-STARRS at Haleakala Observatory on Maui Island, Hawaii on October 19, 2017.

"The same way we use comets to better understand planet formation in our own Solar System, maybe this curious object can tell us more about how planets form in other systems", said Jackson. Researchers initially thought the object was a comet, but observations showed 'Oumuamua, measuring about 230 metres long by 35 metres wide (800 feet by 100 feet), was a dense, rocky body that was tumbling chaotically.

Oumuamua Binary star system
GETTYBinary star systems are two stars orbiting one another

Researchers have some good reasons for thinking that 'Oumuamua - which clocks in at an impressive 1,312 feet long - came to our solar system by way of a binary system.

As a starting point, Jackson says it's important to understand that in order for an object to be ejected from a star system it needs to interact with something big. The team's computer simulations suggest that up to 36% of binary stars can eject asteroids.

Major questions about 'Oumuamua remain. Now, a paper published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on Monday shows that the alien rock was probably born during the formation of a binary star system somewhere beyond the Solar System. Researchers are trying to determine how it got its cigar-like shape and from where it may have originated. According to past research, 'Oumuamua has been soaring through space for billions of years, having been set on its chaotic path possibly due to a collision with another asteroid from its own system.

Back in February, a team from Queen's University Belfast helped piece together the puzzle that was its orbit, the most eccentric ever observed by an object travelling through our solar system.

"It's remarkable that we have now seen for the first time a physical object from outside our solar system", said Alan Jackson from the University of Toronto Scarborough in Canada.

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