Astronomers are always tracking asteroids and comets in space near Earth, and some of them are from unfathomably far away in the outer solar system. However, scientists may have spotted the first such object that’s from someplace even more distant–another solar system. The mysterious object known only as A/2017 U1 was spotted earlier this month, and the team believes it is extra-solar in origin.
Scientists have been specifically looking for something like this for decades. The discovery was made by a researcher at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy. The object was first spotted by astronomer Rob Weryk, who was reviewing images captured by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope (see above). This instrument is designed to take continuous images of the sky, which are useful for identifying asteroid and comets that move relative to the backdrop of stars.
Weryk nearly dismissed the finding as just another near-Earth object, but he realized the motion didn’t match that classification. A/2017 U1 was moving through the solar system at a fantastic speed of 55 miles per second relative to the sun. It’s going so fast that the sun’s gravity wasn’t even able to capture it. That’s incredibly interesting, of course, but it also means we won’t be seeing A/2017 U1 again. It’s on its way out of the solar system after being deflected by the sun.
A/2017 U1 is on the small side–about a quarter mile across (400 meters). It appears to have entered our corner of the galaxy from above the plane of the solar system, in the direction of the constellation Lyra. It crossed the plane between Mercury and Venus on September 2nd, at which time the sun’s gravity bent its trajectory and ejected it from the solar system. The closest it came to Earth was 15 million miles on October 14th. It lost a little speed, now moving at roughly 25 miles per second. That’s still enough to escape the sun’s gravity and return to deep space.
Unfortunately, the approach of the invader was blocked by the sun, so astronomers couldn’t see it until recently. Scientists around the world are working out plans to get as many observations of A/2017 U1 done before it’s too far away to see. In the coming weeks, we could learn more about the object’s composition and from where it came. It might have a completely different makeup compared with the asteroids and comets in our solar system. After all, those are the only ones we’ve ever seen.
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