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Astronomers think they have spotted the first large object to come from beyond the solar system.
Based on its apparent brightness, dynamicist Bill Gray calculates that it would have a diameter of about 160 meters (525 feet) if it were a rock with a surface reflectivity of 10%. “It went past the Sun really fast,” Gray notes, “and may not have had time to heat up enough to break apart.”
Now it’s headed out of the solar system, never to return. It passed closest to Earth on October 14th at a distance of about 24,000,000 km (15,000,000 miles), and astronomers worldwide have been tracking it in the hopes of divining its true nature — especially whether it’s displaying any cometary activity.
…According to Gray, Comet PanSTARRS appears to have entered the solar system from the direction of the constellation Lyra, within a couple of degrees of right ascension 18h 50m, declination +35° 13′. That’s tantalizingly close to Vega — and eerily reminiscent of the plot of the movie Contact — but its exact path doesn’t (yet) appear to link any particular star.
This object entered the solar system moving at 26 km (16 miles) per second. At that speed, in 10 million years it would traverse 8,200,000,000,000,000 km — more than 850 light-years.
Reminds me of a really good science fiction novel I read recently. They should keep an eye on it for as long as they can, just in case it suddenly changes course and settles into a more circular orbit around the Sun. In the unlikely case it does that, it might just be the biggest discovery in history.