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Our First Messenger From Afar?

It whizzed past the Sun at a furious 196,000 miles per...

comet

Used with permission.

A rocky, reddish, cigar-shaped object (that picture isn’t it, you have to look here to see it) whizzed past the Sun at a furious 196,000 miles per hour September 9, 2017.

This interstellar intruder was named Oumuamua (MOO-uh MOO-uh), Hawaiian for “a messenger from afar arriving first”. It was discovered by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii, during its nightly search for near-Earth objects for NASA. Before that official name was chosen, the name Rama was suggested after the alien spaceship from Arthur C. Clarke’s  Rendezvous with Rama. Oumuamua and Rama were both of interstellar origins and unusually elongated.

We don’t know what Oumuamua’s planetary birth system is or how long it’s spent tumbling past the stars. Our Solar System is probably the first Oumuamua has closely encountered since its journey began, potentially several billion years ago. The correlation between Oumuamua’s velocity and local standard of rest suggest it traveled about the Milky Way a few times, indicating it might have originated from a totally different part of the galaxy.

Oumuamua is unlike any object we’ve seen in our solar system. It’s at least ten times shiner than comets. Its brightness is unsteady, with wide variations. Light curve observations suggest it’s formed from dense metal-rich rock, reddened from millions of years of exposure to cosmic rays. And, we don’t have any asteroids or comets with such a large ratio between length and width. It’s about one-quarter mile long, 10 times as long as it is wide. Other elongated objects we’ve come across were no more than three times longer than their width.

It’s estimated that an interstellar object passes through the inner solar system about once per year, but we missed them.  We have a chance to discover them now due to Pan-STARRS1 and the other survey telescopes that are powerful enough to spot them. 

Scientists believe vents on Oumuamua’s surface emitted jets of gases. This eruption of gas pushed or thrust the object giving it a slight boost in speed. Since it expels gas, Oumuamua is probably composed of frozen gases. And it is more reflective maybe up to 10 times more than the comets that reside in our solar system. Some of the released gas may have covered the surface of Oumuamua with a reflective coat of ice and snow. 

Scientists think Oumuamua must have collided with at least one big gas planet. That impact sent it plunging through space. There are four planet-less stars we have identified as possible candidates for the origin of the cigar-shaped rock. However, there is another theory. Harvard astronomy Avi Loeb suggested Oumuamua may be extraterrestrial in origin.  Loeb suggested it might be a “broken” interstellar craft, with only the sail remaining. Meaning its outward acceleration was due to it being a solar sail rather than an outgassing space rock. 

It plunged toward the sun on an outbound path about 20 degrees above the planets. So, there were no encounters with Earth or any of our other planets. It is now zipping toward the constellation Pegasus. It will take Oumuamua about 20,000 years before it completely exits the Solar System.

Which do you believe? I’ll admit I’m torn. I’d like it to be extraterrestrial, but it probably just has gas. (Yes, I went there. Hey, I had FOUR brothers! hahaha)

Perilously yours,

Pauline

 

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