Images are Starting to Come in of the New Interstellar Comet | Universe Today
Categories: AstronomyComets

Images are Starting to Come in of the New Interstellar Comet

On August 30th, amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov spotted a comet of extrasolar origin passing through our Solar System. This is the second time in as many years that an interstellar object has been observed (the last being ‘Oumuamua 2.0 in 2017). Thanks to the Gemini Observatory, we now have pictures of this comet, making it the first object of its kind to be successfully imaged in multiple colors!

The comet, designated C/2019 Q4 (Borisov), was captured by the Gemini North Telescope’s Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph on the night of September 9-10th. The image showed a very pronounced tail, which is indicative of outgassing and confirms that the object is a comet. This is another first, where C/2019 Q4 is the first interstellar visitor to clearly form a tail as a result of outgassing.

Artist’s impression of the interstellar object, `Oumuamua, experiencing outgassing as it leaves our Solar System. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser

Andrew Stephens, an astronomer with the Gemini Observatory, was responsible for coordinating the observations. As he explained:

“This image was possible because of Gemini’s ability to rapidly adjust observations and observe objects like this, which have very short windows of visibility. However, we really had to scramble for this one since we got the final details at 3:00 am and were observing it by 4:45!”

The color image was produced by combining the Gemini observations, which were taken in two color bands. These were obtained as part of a project led by Piotr Guzik and Michal Drahus at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow (Poland), which seeks to capture images of astronomical “targets of opportunity”.

At present, C/2019 Q4 is close to the apparent position of the Sun and is therefore difficult to observe. Over the next few months, its hyperbolic flight path will bring it to more favorable observing conditions. It is this same path that led astronomers to conclude that it is likely to be interstellar in origin, and follow-up observations are expected to reveal more about its composition.

Artist’s impression of the first interstellar asteroid/comet, “Oumuamua”. This unique object was discovered on 19 October 2017 by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Since asteroids and comets are believed to be leftover material from the formation of a system, knowing what this comet is composed of will allow astronomers to learn a great deal about where it came from. This is one of the greatest benefits of interstellar objects, in that they allow us to learn more about distant star systems without actually having to send robotic spacecraft there.

In the case of C/2019 Q4, astronomers also have the benefit of knowing about it in advance. When ‘Oumuamua was first detected, it had already made its closest pass to the Sun and flew by Earth on its way out of the Solar System. In other words, the most opportune times to study it had largely passed by the time it was spotted.

And if there is even the slightest chance that this interstellar visitor is an extra-terrestrial probe (as was suggested about ‘Oumuamua), then future studies will reveal far more than we ever expected! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here…

Further Reading: Gemini Observatory

Matt Williams @

Matt Williams is the Curator of Universe Today's Guide to Space. He is also a freelance writer, a science fiction author and a Taekwon-Do instructor. He lives with his family on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia.

Recent Posts

Riding the Wave of a Supernova to Go Interstellar

A new paper by two Harvard professors explores the idea of using supernova as a means of high-speed interstellar travel…

10 hours ago

A Commercial Satellite Just Docked with Another for the First Time, Opening Up a New Era in Orbital Maintenance

SpaceLogistics LLC has achieved a first: it's docked it's maintenance satellite, called MEV-1, with another satellite in order to extend…

1 day ago

Astronomers Discover a Tiny New Temporary Moon for the Earth. Welcome to the Family 2020 CD3

Astronomers are increasingly interested in Near-Earth Objects, or NEOs. There are ongoing efforts to find them all and catalog them…

1 day ago

Look down into a pit on Mars. The caved-in roof of a lava tube could be a good place to explore on the Red Planet

Want to look inside a deep, dark pit on Mars? Scientists and engineers using the HiRISE Camera on board NASA's…

2 days ago

Future Astronauts Could Enjoy Fresh Vegetables From an Autonomous Orbital Greenhouse

A team from a Russian polytechnic university is working on an autonomous space module where fresh vegetables could be grown…

2 days ago

The Life of Katherine Johnson Shows that ‘Hidden Figures’ Are Important to History

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson did more than just calculate rocket trajectories for early space missions. Her story, when it was…

2 days ago