CAPE CANAVERAL, FL (WCMH/AP) — A strangely-shaped asteroid caught the attention of astronomers as it zoomed past a collection of telescopes in Hawaii last month.
The oblong shape was dubbed ‘Oumuamua, which means “scout” or “messenger” in Hawaii, Slate reports.
Oumuamua is the first known interstellar object to pass through our solar system. It is different than other asteroids for several reasons. Oumuamua has an unusual shape and a hyperbolic trajectory, unlike the elliptical orbit that objects born in our solar system usually follow. It also came into our solar system at a blistering pace.
“I’m surprised by the elongated shape — nobody expected that,” said astronomer David Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles, who led the observation team that reported on the characteristics.
It came from the direction of the constellation Lyra, which is 25 light-years away. Some scientists with Breakthrough Initiatives are scanning the object in search of any transmission signals in case this strange visitor was sent by an outlying alien civilization.
Scientists are certain this asteroid or comet originated outside our solar system. First spotted last month by the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii, it will stick around for another few years before departing our sun’s neighborhood.
Jewitt and his international team observed the object for five nights in late October using the Nordic Optical Telescope in the Canary Islands and the Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona.
At approximately 100 feet by 100 feet by 600 feet (30 meters by 30 meters by 180 meters), the object has proportions roughly similar to a fire extinguisher — though not nearly as red, Jewitt said in November. Others say it resembles a cigar. The slightly red hue — specifically pale pink — and varying brightness are remarkably similar to asteroids in our own solar system, he noted.
The object is so faint and so fast — it’s zooming through the solar system at 40,000 mph (64,000 kph) — it’s unlikely amateur astronomers will see it.
In a paper to the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the scientists report that our solar system could be packed with 10,000 such interstellar travelers at any given time. It takes 10 years to cross our solar system, providing plenty of future viewing opportunities, the scientists said.
Trillions of objects from other star systems could have passed our way over the eons, according to Jewitt.
It suggests our solar system ejected its own share of asteroids and comets as the large outer planets — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune — formed.
Why did it take so long to nail the first interstellar wanderer?
“Space is big and our eyes are weak,” Jewitt explained via email.
Anticipating more such discoveries, the International Astronomical Union already has approved a new designation for cosmic interlopers. They get an “I” for interstellar in their string of letters and numbers.