Interstellar Asteroid Visits Our Solar System
An asteroid that originated from outside the solar system, coming from somewhere else in our galaxy, has been discovered by astronomers. It is the first "interstellar object" to be observed and confirmed by astronomers.
(This animation shows the path of A/2017 U1)
This unusual object – for now designated A/2017 U1 – is less than a quarter-mile (400 meters) in diameter and is moving remarkably fast. Astronomers are urgently working to point telescopes around the world and in space at this notable object. Once these data are obtained and analyzed, astronomers may know more about the origin and possibly composition of the object.
A/2017 U1 was discovered Oct. 19 by the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii, during the course of its nightly search for near-Earth objects for NASA. Rob Weryk, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IfA), was first to identify the moving object and submit it to the Minor Planet Center. Weryk subsequently searched the Pan-STARRS image archive and found it also was in images taken the previous night, but was not initially identified by the moving object processing...
The object approached our solar system from almost directly "above" the ecliptic, the approximate plane in space where the planets and most asteroids orbit the Sun, so it did not have any close encounters with the eight major planets during its plunge toward the Sun. On Sept. 2, the small body crossed under the ecliptic plane just inside of Mercury's orbit and then made its closest approach to the Sun on Sept. 9. Pulled by the Sun's gravity, the object made a hairpin turn under our solar system, passing under Earth's orbit on Oct. 14 at a distance of about 15 million miles (24 million kilometers) -- about 60 times the distance to the Moon. It has now shot back up above the plane of the planets and, travelling at 27 miles per second (44 kilometers per second) with respect to the Sun, the object is speeding toward the constellation Pegasus.
The earliest explicit mention of this idea that I know about in science fiction occurs in the 1930 classic Brigands of the Moon by the always-entertaining Ray Cummings:
I sat at the turret window, staring through my glasses. A fair, little world, yet obviously uninhabited. I could fancy that all this was newly sprung vegetation. This asteroid had whirled in from the cold of the interplanetary space, far outside our solar system.
(Read more about Ray Cummings' interstellar asteroid)
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