First interstellar asteroid ever discovered looks like a massive joint hurtling through space
Are aliens trying to tempt us into an intergalactic smoke session?
This artist’s impression shows the first interstellar asteroid: `Oumuamua. This unique object was discovered on 19 October 2017 by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawai`i. Subsequent observations from ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and other observatories around the world show that it was travelling through space for millions of years before its chance encounter with our star system. `Oumuamua seems to be a dark red highly-elongated metallic or rocky object, about 400 metres long, and is unlike anything normally found in the Solar System. Image by: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Space has been wild lately. Just a month ago, scientists discovered two neutron stars colliding into each other. On top of looking nuts, it was illustrative evidence of gravity waves, one of Albert Einstein’s theories that were proven only a little while ago. Space, restless as ever, is throwing us another gift just in time for the holidays. Scientists in Hawaii spotted what they believe to be the first interstellar asteroid we’ve ever detected, an object from some other solar system passing through ours. It is of parts unknown. We may have never encountered the metals it is made out of. It is alien, glorious, divine.
Oh, and it totally looks like a big ol’ joint.
Long and slender, the stone’s natural cragginess resembling the pinches and dents of a joint’s paper. This gigantic spliff was about the size of a football field, though it rotated like a baton more than a football pass’ spiral. They believe it is dense and metallic, and it’s dark reddish irradiated color suggests it could be millions of years old and extremely dank. From shape to size, it is unlike anything else floating in our solar system.
The asteroid was named Oumuamua, a Hawaiian portmanteau. “‘Oumuamua loosely means “a messenger that reaches out from the distant past,” said the Gemini Observatory’s statement, “fitting the nature of the object’s interstellar origin. In Hawaiian ‘ou means “to reach out for,” while mua means “first” and is repeated for emphasis.”
“This thing is an oddball,” said Karen Meech, who led the team that discovered the asteroid. It’s far from the first interstellar object to hit our neck of the woods, they estimate there’s about one per year. But it was the first big enough for us to see. It came from the direction of the Lyra constellation, though that system may not have been in that spot when Oumuamua was. They believe this asteroid may have been a total lone wolf, floating in the Milky Way without a star system to call home. Poor guy.
If you are hoping to catch what appears to be God’s cosmic doob, don’t bother standing around with a catcher’s mitt. The object has already come and gone. It rocketed at 95,000 kilometers/hour into our solar system, arcing by, just weaving between the Earth and the Sun. The closest it got to us was 24 million kilometers from our planet, and me, the guy who’d like to smoke the space joint. By the time it was detected, it was already leaving, and astronomers around the world had to work swiftly to learn all that they could. Foreign objects like these can tell us about planets long beyond our reach.
“We had to act quickly,” said Olivier Hainaut, a German scientist who helped track the object “`Oumuamua had already passed its closest point to the Sun and was heading back into interstellar space.”
Fare thee well, space joint. Blazing across the universe, may you one day find the right place to roast.