“'Oumuamua” Asteroid Is The First “Interstellar Rock” Seen In Our Solar System, & Astronomers Aren’t Sure Where Exactly It Came From
Our solar system is already filled with mystery, but the recent discovery of an interstellar asteroid proves just how wild space is. Astronomers shared news of the finding on Nov. 20. Although it was first spotted in October, scientists now have an idea of its shape and color. NASA described the asteroid, which is named `Oumuamua, as a "rocky, cigar-shaped object with a reddish hue." The name was chosen by Hawaiian language experts, and it means "messenger sent from the distant past to reach out to us." Based on what we know about `Oumuamua (pronounced "HO-u-mua-mua"), the name seems fitting. The asteroid is the first official interstellar rock spotted in our solar system, and astronomers aren't sure where it came from, but as they say... the truth is out there.
The European Southern Observatory released a statement about the discovery earlier this week and said `Oumuamua has likely been traveling through space for millions of years. It was spotted by their aptly named Very Large Telescope. The asteroid has been moving at an impressive speed of 59,000 miles an hour, per the release, and came from the same direction as Vega, a bright star once featured in the famous sci-fi film Contact. NASA's official website was down Tuesday morning, but the agency shared an artist's rendering of the asteroid via its official Twitter account.
It's Surprisingly Huge And Really Fast
The asteroid is up to a quarter-mile long, according to NASA — that's five city blocks. When you consider the size of our existing planets (the smallest planet, Mercury, is more than 3,000 miles in diameter), it doesn't seem that big. But when you imagine it hurtling through space at 59,000 miles an hour, the size is pretty awe-inducing. Because the asteroid moves so quickly, astronomers didn't have much time to study it.
"We had to act quickly," said astronomer Olivier Hainaut in a press release. "`Oumuamua had already passed its closest point to the Sun and was heading back into interstellar space."
Its Shape And Size Are "Like Nothing Seen Before"
According to the European Southern Observatory, the asteroid's physical appearance was super surprising. `Oumuamua's color and brightness vary by a factor of 10. Scientists suspect that the object is red because of radiation. It also doesn't have any significant amounts of water or ice.
Astronomer Karen Meech said this in the release: "This unusually large variation in brightness means that the object is highly elongated: about ten times as long as it is wide, with a complex, convoluted shape. We also found that it has a dark red color, similar to objects in the outer Solar System, and confirmed that it is completely inert, without the faintest hint of dust around it."
Asteroids like this help astronomers learn more about our galaxy and far-off places outside of our solar system that we don't know much about. Scientists say our solar system could contain as many as 10,000 interstellar visitors, which is mind-blowing.
People Are Freaking Out
This discovery is pretty exciting for everyone, but people who love space are experiencing another level of enthusiasm right now. According to the European Southern Observatory, we could see interstellar asteroids as frequently as once a year now that astronomers know what to look for.
Even though a ton isn't known about 'Oumuamua, the fact that it's an interstellar object spotted by humans is pretty significant. It means that we now have telescopes advanced enough to study foreign space objects even though they're usually hard to see.
Naturally, Twitter had its fun with 'Oumuamua, and some people even took a chance to half-jokingly wonder if this could be a sign that aliens are actually out there.
Whether you usually nerd out over space or not, this is a pretty wild scientific finding. We're not sure what else is waiting to be discovered, but 'Oumuamua is proof the future will probably hold even more groundbreaking astronomy revelations.