Tag Archives: interstellar object

More data from interstellar Comet 2I/Borisov as it zipped past Sun in December

Astronomers studying interstellar Comet 2I/Borisov as it zipped past Sun in December have found that while in many ways it resembled solar system comets, the differences were revealing.

During its trip through the solar system, the comet lost nearly 61 million gallons (230 million liters) of water — enough to fill over 92 Olympic-size swimming pools. As it moved away from the Sun, Borisov’s water loss dropped off — and did so more rapidly than any previously observed comet. Xing said this could have been caused by a variety of factors, including surface erosion, rotational change and even fragmentation. In fact, data from Hubble and other observatories show that chunks of the comet broke off in late March.

…Swift’s water production measurements also helped the team calculate that Borisov’s minimum size is just under half a mile (0.74 kilometer) across. The team estimates at least 55% of Borisov’s surface — an area roughly equivalent to half of Central Park — was actively shedding material when it was closest to the Sun. That’s at least 10 times the active area on most observed solar system comets. Borisov also differs from solar system comets in other aspects. For example, astronomers working with Hubble and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, a radio telescope in Chile, discovered Borisov produced the highest levels of carbon monoxide ever seen from a comet at that distance from the Sun.

Because more of the comet’s entire surface had water ice than seen in solar system comets, it suggests that the comet has never been close to another star before. That the water release dropped off precipitously however also suggests that that surface layer of ice was not very deep.

An update on Comet 2I/Borisov

Link here.

Overall, this second known interstellar object to pass through the solar system appears to be a very typical comet. They have found however that its nucleus is much smaller than at first thought, only 200 to 500 meters across, which means that radiation pressure from the Sun could cause its rotation to spin up, with the possibility that this spin could get fast enough to cause the comet to break up.

The comet made its closest approach to the Sun in December, and will spend the next year-plus flying outward to beyond Saturn.

First data suggests Comet Borisov resembles solar comets

The first spectrum obtained from Comet Borisov suggests that it is quite similar to comets in our solar system.

The gas detected was cyanogen, made of a carbon atom and a nitrogen atom bonded together. It is a toxic gas if inhaled, but it is relatively common in comets.

The team concluded that the most remarkable thing about the comet is that it appears ordinary in terms of the gas and dust it is emitting. It looks like it was born 4.6 billion years ago with the other comets in our Solar system, yet has come from an – as yet – unidentified star system.

It is still very early, so drawing any firm conclusions at this point is risky.

Interstellar comet discovered?

An amateur astronomer has discovered what appears right now to be an interstellar comet making its approach into the solar system.

[I]mages show that the incoming object sports a faint but distinct coma and the barest hint of a tail — something ‘Oumuamua lacked — and thus appears to be a comet. Astronomers are no doubt eager to get spectra of the new find to determine what compounds might be escaping from its surface.

Based on current observations, C/2019 Q4’s eccentricity is about 3.2 — definitely hyperbolic. Objects on hyperbolic orbits are unbound to the Sun. They’re most likely to hail from beyond the solar system, flying in from great distances to pay our neighborhood a brief visit before heading off for parts unknown.

If this result holds up, astronomers have an unprecedented opportunity to study a potentially interstellar object in great detail over a long span of time. Based on the comet’s current magnitude (~18) and distance from the Sun (2.7 a.u.), it appears to be a fairly large object — perhaps 10 km or more across, depending on the reflectivity of its surface.

There remains a great deal of uncertainty about comet’s path, which will be better resolved with time and better data.

If it is a comet from beyond the solar system, it will be a spectacular goldmine for scientists, because its coma and tail will allow them to gather a great deal of information about its make-up, far more than they were able to gather about Oumuamua.

Did an interstellar meteor hit the Earth in 2014?

By analyzing the speed in which it traveled through the atmosphere, astronomers propose that a meteor that hit the ground in 2014 was probably an interstellar object.

The scientists analyzed the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies’ catalog of meteor events detected by U.S. government sensors. They focused on the fastest meteors, because a high speed suggests a meteor is potentially not gravitationally bound to the sun and thus may originate from outside the solar system.

The researchers identified a meteor about 3 feet (0.9 meters) wide that was detected on Jan. 8, 2014, at an altitude of 11.6 miles (18.7 kilometers) over a point near Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island in the South Pacific. Its high speed of about 134,200 mph (216,000 km/h) and its trajectory suggested it came from outside the solar system, the scientists said. “We can use the atmosphere of the Earth as the detector for these meteors, which are too small to otherwise see,” Loeb told Space.com.

The meteor’s velocity suggested it received a gravitational boost during its journey, perhaps from the deep interior of a planetary system, or a star in the thick disk of the Milky Way.

To put it mildly, there are a lot of uncertainties about this conclusion. Nonetheless, their approach and hypothesis is very intriguing, and seems logical.

Null result from Spitzer suggests Oumuamua was small

The uncertainty of science: The inability of the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope to detect the interstellar object Oumuamua as it exited the solar system suggests the object is small.

The fact that ‘Oumuamua was too faint for Spitzer to detect sets a limit on the object’s total surface area. However, since the non-detection can’t be used to infer shape, the size limits are presented as what ‘Oumuamua’s diameter would be if it were spherical. Using three separate models that make slightly different assumptions about the object’s composition, Spitzer’s non-detection limited ‘Oumuamua’s “spherical diameter” to 1,440 feet (440 meters), 460 feet (140 meters) or perhaps as little as 320 feet (100 meters). The wide range of results stems from the assumptions about ‘Oumuamua’s composition, which influences how visible (or faint) it would appear to Spitzer were it a particular size.

The new study also suggests that ‘Oumuamua may be up to 10 times more reflective than the comets that reside in our solar system – a surprising result, according to the paper’s authors.

These results fit the models that explain Oumuamua’s fluctuations in speed as caused by the out gassing of material, like a comet. They also do not contradict the recent hypothesis that the object might have been an alien-built light sail.

The simple fact is that we do not have enough data to confirm any of these theories.

Oumuamua might be artificial lightsail

A new analysis of the velocity and path of the interstellar object Oumuamua suggests it might be an artificial lightsail.

The study, which was posted online earlier this month, suggests that Oumuamua’s strange “excess acceleration” could be artificial in nature, as it has been implied that it is not an active comet. “Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that ‘Oumuamua is a lightsail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment,” researchers wrote in the paper.

The paper continues: “Lightsails with similar dimensions have been designed and constructed by our own civilization, including the IKAROS project and the Starshot Initiative. The lightsail technology might be abundantly used for transportation of cargos between planets or between stars.”

They even theorized that Oumuamua “may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization,” though that scenario was called “exotic.”

All of this is speculation. However, that the object is moving faster than expected, based on the initial data of its path, is quite intriguing. The authors of the paper concluded that the excess speed was caused by “solar radiation pressure.” They also calculated that for the light pressure to cause that increase in speed as it moves away requires it to have a large surface area.

The observations are not sufficiently sensitive to provide a resolved image of ‘Oumuamua, and one can only speculate on its possible geometry and nature. Although periodic variations in the apparent magnitude are observed, there are still too many degrees of freedom (e.g., observing angle, non-uniform reflectively, etc.) to definitely constrain the geometry. The geometry should not necessarily be that of a planar sheet, but may acquire other shapes, e.g., involving a curved sheet, a hollow cone or ellipsoidal, etc. Depending on the geometry our estimated value for the mass-to-area ratio will change, but the correction is typically of order unity.

They then speculate the possibility of the object being an interstellar probe.

New observations of interstellar Oumuamua give it comet-like properties

The uncertainty of science: New observations of interstellar object Oumuamua suggest that it is a comet, not an asteroid.

[B]y combining data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the Gemini South Telescope, an international team of astronomers has found that the object is moving faster than predicted. The measured gain in speed is tiny and `Oumuamua is still slowing down because of the pull of the Sun — just not as fast as predicted by celestial mechanics.

The team, led by Marco Micheli (European Space Agency) explored several scenarios to explain the faster-than-predicted speed of this peculiar interstellar visitor. The most likely explanation is that `Oumuamua is venting material from its surface due to solar heating — a behaviour known as outgassing. The thrust from this ejected material is thought to provide the small but steady push that is sending `Oumuamua hurtling out of the Solar System faster than expected — as of 1 June, it is travelling with about 114 000 kilometres per hour.

Such outgassing is a typical behaviour for comets and contradicts the previous classification of `Oumuamua as an interstellar asteroid. “We think this is a tiny, weird comet,” comments Marco Micheli. “We can see in the data that its boost is getting smaller the farther away it travels from the Sun, which is typical for comets.”

If I was to speculate wildly, I could also wonder if maybe the aliens on board have decided they needed to get the heck out of here as fast as possible, and have fired their thrusters to make that happen.

Interstellar object Oumuamua tumbling chaotically

A new analysis of the data obtained when the interstellar object Oumuamua flew through the solar system in October 2016 suggests that it is tumbling in a chaotic manner, and that the surface is spotty.

Straight away, they discovered that ‘Oumuamua wasn’t spinning periodically like most of the small asteroids and bodies that we see in our solar system. Instead, it is tumbling, or spinning chaotically, and could have been for many billions of years.

While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for this, it is thought that `Oumuamua impacted with another asteroid before it was fiercely thrown out of its system and into interstellar space. Dr Fraser explains: “Our modelling of this body suggests the tumbling will last for many billions of years to hundreds of billions of years before internal stresses cause it to rotate normally again.

To me, this data settles the question about whether Oumuamua is not an artificial structure. It is not. If it were, an impact that would have caused this kind of tumbling would have almost certainly destroyed it. Instead, it likely broke the original bolide up, producing many fragments, including Oumuamua and its elongated shape.

As for the object’s spottiness:

Dr Fraser explains: “Most of the surface reflects neutrally but one of its long faces has a large red region. This argues for broad compositional variations, which is unusual for such a small body.”

It is really a shame we couldn’t get a closer look before it sped away.

Oumuamua has a thick carbon crust built up by its interstellar travel

New results of observations of the interstellar object Oumuamua suggest that it has a thick crust of organic carbon soot that was slowly built up during the millions of years it traveled between the stars.

New observations of the cigar-shaped body found evidence for a deep surface layer that formed when organic ices – such as frozen carbon dioxide, methane and methanol – that make up the object were battered by the intense radiation that exists between the stars.

…The deep outer crust may have formed on the body over millions or even billions of years and gives ‘Oumuamua a dark red colour, according to researchers who investigated the object with the William Herschel Telescope on La Palma in the Canary Islands and the European Southern observatory in Chile’s Atacama desert.

There have been a slew of news stories today about these results, all focusing not on the crust of the object, which tells us nothing really about its interior, but on one quote by one scientist from the press release, who theorized — based on zero data — that the interior of the object could be icy. From this quote I have seen at least a half dozen stories exclaiming that Oumuamua thus could be like a comet, based on no information at all.

All we have learned is that traveling for a long time in interstellar space causes a build up of carbon-rich materials on the surface of an object. What might be hidden under that crust remains entirely unknown. It could be icy, but we don’t know that.

Initial analysis of radio observations of Oumuamua detect no artificial signals

The initial analysis of the first set of radio observations of Oumuamua by Breakthrough Listen has so far not detected any artificial signals.

No such signals have been detected, although the analysis is not yet complete. So far, data from the S-band receiver (covering frequencies from 1.7 to 2.6 GHz) has been processed, and analysis of the remaining three bands is ongoing. A subset of the S-band data is now available for public inspection in the Breakthrough Listen archive3, and additional data will be added as it becomes available.

The data is stored in specialized formats, and analyzing it may be challenging for non-experts. We invite those who are interested to study the tutorial material provided by the Breakthrough Listen science team at the University of California, Berkeley, SETI Research Center and to assist with the analysis not only of this intriguing object, but of the entire Breakthrough Listen dataset.

They still plan three more observation sessions.

Breakthrough Listen to observe Ourmuamua

Breakthrough Listen, one of billionaire Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough initiatives, is going to do an observation campaign of the interstellar object Ourmuamua using the Green Bank Radio telescope.

It has a highly unusual structure for an asteroid – an elongated cigar shape, hundreds of meters in length but with width and height perhaps only one tenth as long.

Researchers working on long-distance space transportation have previously suggested that a cigar or needle shape is the most likely architecture for an interstellar spacecraft, since this would minimize friction and damage from interstellar gas and dust. While a natural origin is more likely, there is currently no consensus on what that origin might have been, and Breakthrough Listen is well positioned to explore the possibility that ‘Oumuamua could be an artifact.

Listen’s observation campaign will begin on Wednesday, December 13 at 3:00 pm ET. Using the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, it will continue to observe ‘Oumuamua across four radio bands, from 1 to 12 GHz. Its first phase of observations will last a total of 10 hours, divided into four “epochs” based on the object’s period of rotation.

If anything, this observation will provide us more information about Ourmuamua itself, which unfortunately is very limited because the object was already on its way out when it was discovered.