Astronomers detect interstellar object invading another distant solar system

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) astronomers think they have detected for the first time an interstellar object that has invaded another distant solar system and disturbed material in its protoplanetary accretion disk.

From the paper’s abstract:

A point source ~4,700 au [astronomical unit, equal to about 100 million miles] from the binary has been discovered at both millimetre and centimetre wavelengths. It is located along the extension of a ~2,000 au streamer structure previously found in scattered light imaging, whose counterpart in dust and gas emission is also newly identified. Comparison with simulations shows signposts of a rare flyby event in action.

This data further confirms that interactions between interstellar objects occur with reasonably frequency, and can thus act to influence the formation of solar systems.

New Hubble images of Comet 2I/Borisov

Comet 2I/Borisov taken by Hubble prior to and at its closest approach to Sun
Click for full image.

Scientists today released new images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of the interstellar object Comet 2I/Borisov. The image on the left was taken prior to the comet’s closest approach to the Sun, while the image on the right was taken during that closest approach. The vertical smeared object to the left in the earlier image is a galaxy that happened to be in the field of view. The blue color of both images is a false color to bring out details.

“Hubble gives us the best upper limit of the size of comet Borisov’s nucleus, which is the really important part of the comet,” said David Jewitt, a UCLA professor of planetary science and astronomy, whose team has captured the best and sharpest look at this first confirmed interstellar comet. “Surprisingly, our Hubble images show that its nucleus is more than 15 times smaller than earlier investigations suggested it might be. Our Hubble images show that the radius is smaller than half-a-kilometer. Knowing the size is potentially useful for beginning to estimate how common such objects may be in the solar system and our galaxy. Borisov is the first known interstellar comet, and we would like to learn how many others there are.”

The first image was taken from a distance of 203 million miles, while the second was taken from 185 million miles. Expect more images in late December, when the comet makes its closest approach to Earth at a distance of 180 million miles.

New image of Comet 2I/Borisov

Comet 2I/Borisov
Click for full image.

Astronomers have taken a new image of the interstellar comet 2I/Borisov. The photograph to the right is that image, with the Earth placed alongside to show scale.

According to van Dokkum the comet’s tail, shown in the new image, is nearly 100,000 miles long, which is 14 times the size of Earth. “It’s humbling to realize how small Earth is next to this visitor from another solar system,” van Dokkum said.

Laughlin noted that 2l/Borisov is evaporating as it gets closer to Earth, releasing gas and fine dust in its tail. “Astronomers are taking advantage of Borisov’s visit, using telescopes such as Keck to obtain information about the building blocks of planets in systems other than our own,” Laughlin said.

The solid nucleus of the comet is only about a mile wide. As it began reacting to the Sun’s warming effect, the comet has taken on a “ghostly” appearance, the researchers said.

The comet will reach its closest point to the Earth, 190 million miles, in early December.

Hubble snaps photo of Comet Borisov

Comet Borisov by Hubble
Click for full image.

Cool image time! Using the Hubble Space Telescope astronomers have snapped the best image so far of interstellar Comet Borisov. The image to the right, reduced and cropped to post here, is that photograph.

Comet 2I/Borisov is only the second such interstellar object known to have passed through our Solar System. In 2017, the first identified interstellar visitor, an object dubbed ‘Oumuamua, swung within 38 million kilometres of the Sun before racing out of the Solar System. “Whereas ‘Oumuamua looked like a bare rock, Borisov is really active, more like a normal comet. It’s a puzzle why these two are so different,” explained David Jewitt of UCLA, leader of the Hubble team who observed the comet.

The comet was 260 million miles away when Hubble took this picture.

Comet Borisov is now 2I/Borisov

Because the comet that amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov discovered in August is actually the second interstellar object ever discovered that is entering the solar system, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has decided to dub it 2I/Borisov, honoring its discoverer as is traditional with comets but indicating its interstellar nature in the name.

The orbit is now sufficiently well known, and the object is unambiguously interstellar in origin; it has received its final designation as the second interstellar object, 2I. In this case, the IAU has decided to follow the tradition of naming cometary objects after their discoverers, so the object has been named 2I/Borisov.

As my regular readers know, I am not a fan of the IAU’s effort to claim the right to name every object in the universe. In this case it has at least made the proper decision.