Our First Asteroid From Another Solar System Is Shaped Like a Giant Cigar

Monday, 20 November 2017 - 8:27PM
Space
Solar System
Astronomy
Monday, 20 November 2017 - 8:27PM
Our First Asteroid From Another Solar System Is Shaped Like a Giant Cigar
M. Kornmesser/ESO
Years ago, before the era of high definition camera smartphones and when The X-Files ruled television, amateur alien-hunters produced plenty of blurry photographs of cigar-shaped objects that were, it was widely believed (at least in some circles) evidence of UFOs, and visitors from beyond the furthest reaches of space.

This trend went away fairly quickly, but now, we have a new blurry flying cigar photo to pore over endlessly as we debate otherworldly visitors. The difference is that this time, the alien object truly is a visitor from a distant star, as it's the first asteroid from another solar system that we've ever found within our own.

Recently, NASA scientists discovered A/2017 U1, an asteroid that's believed to be the first known object within our solar system to have originated from beyond the reach of our beloved home star. Based on its trajectory and velocity, it looks like A/2017 U1 (or 'Oumuamua, as it's been named) probably came from somewhere far away, and is now going to zip through our solar system fairly quickly before continuing its journey off into deep space.



No doubt other asteroids have passed through our neck of the woods in the past, but this is the first time we've managed to spot such a rock, and as such, scientists are trying to learn as much as possible about Oumuamua before it disappears off into the black.

The latest new discovery relates to 'Oumuamua's shape, which should be familiar to anyone who listened to alien-loving conspiracy theorists back in the 1990s. Apparently, this asteroid is long and skinny, much like a cigar, and is spinning constantly as it travels, as if some otherworldly explosion or cataclysmic event picked up the little rock and tossed it out across the galaxy like a gigantic throwing knife.

Karen Meech, of the Institute of Astronomy in Hawaii, explained it some more in a NASA press release:

Opening quote
"This unusually large variation in brightness means that the object is highly elongated: about 10 times as long as it is wide, with a complex, convoluted shape. We also found that it has a dark red color, similar to objects in the outer solar system, and confirmed that it is completely inert, without the faintest hint of dust around it."
Closing quote


Apparently, unlike many asteroids, 'Oumuamua doesn't have an icy tail behind it - possibly thanks to its spinning trajectory. It's just a big red cigar, hurtling endlessly through space.

Alas, what little we've been able to learn from 'Oumuamua is more or less all we're going to get. The giant rock is already heading away from us at a magnificent speed of around 85,700 mph, having looped around the Sun back in September, and brushed past as close to our planet as it'll get back on October 14.

"Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first", which is a well-chosen name, but here's hoping we get more visitors before too long. There's a lot we can learn from material that originated outside out own literal sphere of influence among the stars, and with any luck, this flying red cigar will open the floodgates for more discoveries as we continue to watch out for similar interstellar asteroids in the future.
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