The scientific community is abuzz with what may turn out to be the first observed and confirmed interstellar visit to our solar system. A freshly discovered space rock was seen trekking across our inner solar system last week, and astronomers suggest it could be coming all the way from interstellar space.
The alien space rock was first spotted on October 19 by the Pan-STARRS-1 telescope at the Haleakala Observatory, in Hawaii. Researchers at the University of Hawaii came across the newfound celestial body while scouring the skies for near-Earth objects — which is what they do on a typical night. However, what they found proved to be a little out of the ordinary.
The discovery was made by Rob Weryk, a postdoctoral researcher at the university’s Institute for Astronomy (IfA), who observed what seemed to be either a small comet or an asteroid, no bigger than a quarter-mile in diameter, moving at fast speed in an unusual trajectory. A search through the telescope’s image archive revealed the space rock had also been seen a night before, although Weryk identified it first-hand as a moving object and consequently submitted it to the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The “interstellar visitor,” currently known as A/2017 U1, is most likely an asteroid. What’s remarkable about this rock is its orbital path, which prompted astronomers to believe the object may not have originated from our solar system.
According to Weryk, the space rock seemed quite unusual since it didn’t appear to follow the regular type of trajectory as most celestial bodies formed in our solar system.
“Its motion could not be explained using either a normal solar system asteroid or comet orbit,” Weryk stated in a NASA news release, suggesting that what we’re dealing with is quite possibly an interstellar object “from outside our solar system,” journeying from another star system somewhere in the galaxy.
His observation was corroborated by Marco Micheli, an IfA graduate who came to the same conclusion after analyzing follow-up images captured by the European Space Agency’s telescope in Tenerife. The combined data points to an “interstellar object” which, if confirmed, could mark a tremendous scientific breakthrough.
Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, also chimed in on this spectacular discovery.
“We have been waiting for this day for decades. It’s long been theorized that such objects exist — asteroids or comets moving around between the stars and occasionally passing through our solar system — but this is the first such detection. So far, everything indicates this is likely an interstellar object, but more data would help to confirm it.”
Judging by the path of its orbit, A/2017 U1 seems to have come from the direction of the Lyra constellation, at a cruising speed of 15.8 miles per second. Researchers are hoping to gather more insight into its origin and maybe even its composition once additional data from telescopes worldwide becomes available.
So far, it has been established that the small rock entered our solar system almost perpendicularly to the ecliptic plane where the eight major planets are orbiting, evading a close brush-off with any of them.
Space.com noted the interstellar traveler was initially deemed a comet. However, since it was later observed that the object lacks the well-known tail comets display, it was eventually dubbed an asteroid.
NASA shows A/2017 U1 passed closest to the Sun on September 9 and came within 60 lunar distances from Earth before it was picked up by the Pan-STARRS-1 telescope. Its closest approach to our planet reportedly took place on October 14, when the newly-discovered space rock sped past us 15 million miles away — roughly 60 times the distance to the moon.
A/2017 U1 is currently cruising above the ecliptic plane, moving away from our solar system and its planets, most likely never to return. Traveling at 27 miles per second, the “interstellar object” seems to be headed towards the Pegasus constellation.
[Featured Image by Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock]