Oumuamua Accelerated Out of the Solar System Like a Comet

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) telescope in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid – I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Originally though to be a comet, follow-up observations conducted by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and others confirmed that ‘Oumuamua was actually a rocky body that had originated outside of our Solar System.

Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to learn more about this interstellar visitor, and some missions have even been proposed to go and study it up close. However, the most recent study of ‘Oumuamua, conducted by a team of international scientists, has determined that based on the way it left our Solar System, ‘Oumuamua is likely to be a comet after all.

The study recently appeared in the journal Nature under the title “Non-gravitational acceleration in the trajectory of  1I/2017 U1 (Oumuamua)“. The study team was led by Marco Micheli of the ESA SSA-NEO Coordination Center and the INAF Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma and included members from the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the Planetary Science Institute, and The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL).

As noted, when it was first discovered – roughly a month after it made its closest approach to the Sun – scientists believed ‘Oumuamua was an interstellar comet. However, follow-up observations showed no evidence of gaseous emissions or a dusty environment around the body (i.e. a comet tail), thus leading to it being classified as a rocky interstellar asteroid.

This was followed by a team of international researchers conducting a study that showed how ‘Oumuamua was more icy that previously thought. Using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and the William Herschel Telescope in La Palma, the team was able to obtain spectra from sunlight reflected off of ‘Oumuamua within 48 hours of the discovery. This revealed vital information about the composition of the object, and pointed towards it being icy rather than rocky.

The presence of an outer-layer of carbon rich material also explained why it did not experience outgassing as it neared the Sun. Following these initial observations, Marco Micheli and his team continued to conduct high-precision measurements of ‘Oumuamua and its position using ground-based facilities and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

By January, Hubble was able to snap some final images before the object became too faint to observe as it sped away from the Sun on its way to leaving the Solar System. To their surprise, they noted that the object was increasing its velocity deviating from the trajectory it would be following if only the gravity of the Sun and the planets were influencing its course.

Oumuamua as it appeared using the William Herschel Telescope on the night of October 29. Queen’s University Belfast/William Herschel Telescope

In short, they discovered that ‘Oumuamua was not slowing down as expected, and as of June 1st, 2018, was traveling at a speed of roughly 114,000 km/h (70,800 mph). The most likely explanation, according to the team, is that ‘Oumuamua is venting material from its surface due to solar heating (aka. outgassing). The release of this material would give ‘Oumuamua the steady push it needed to achieve this velocity.

As Davide Farnocchia, a researcher from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a co-author on the paper, explained in a recent ESA press release:

“We tested many possible alternatives and the most plausible one is that ’Oumuamua must be a comet, and that gasses emanating from its surface were causing the tiny variations in its trajectory.”

Moreover, the release of gas pressure would also explain how ‘Oumuamua is veering off course since outgassing has been known to have the effect of perturbing the comet’s path. Naturally, there are still some mysteries that still need to be solved about this body. For one, the team still has not detected any dusty material or chemical signatures that typically characterize a comet.

As such, the team concluded that ‘Oumuamua must have been releasing only a very small amount of dust, or perhaps was releasing more pure gas without much dust. In either case, ‘Oumuamua is estimated to be a very small object, measuring about 400 meters (1312 ft) long. In the end, the hypothesized outgassing of ‘Oumuamua remains a mystery, much like its origin.

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

In fact, the team originally performed the Hubble observations on ‘Oumuamua in the hopes of determining its exact path, which they would then use to trace the object back to its parent star system. These new results mean this will be more challenging than originally thought. As Olivier Hainaut, a researcher from the European Southern Observatory and a co-author on the study, explained:

“It was extremely surprising that `Oumuamua first appeared as an asteroid, given that we expect interstellar comets should be far more abundant, so we have at least solved that particular puzzle. It is still a tiny and weird object, but our results certainly lean towards it being a comet and not an asteroid after all.”

Detlef Koschny, another co-author on the study, is responsible for Near-Earth Object activities under ESA’s Space Situational Awareness program. As he explained, the study of ‘Oumuamua has provided astronomers with the opportunity to improve asteroid detection methods, which could play a vital role in the study of Near-Earth Asteroids and determining if they post a risk.

“Interstellar visitors like these are scientifically fascinating, but extremely rare,” he said. “Near-Earth objects originating from within our Solar System are much more common and because these could pose an impact risk, we are working to improve our ability to scan the sky every night with telescopes such as our Optical Ground Station that contributed to this fascinating discovery.”

Since ‘Oumuamua’s arrival, scientists have determined that there may be thousands of interstellar asteroids currently in our Solar System, the largest of which would be tens of km in radius. Similarly, another study was conducted that revealed the presence of an interstellar asteroid (2015 BZ509) that – unlike ‘Oumuamua, which was an interloper to out system – was captured by Jupiter’s gravity and has since remained in a stable orbit.

This latest study is also timely given the fact that June 30th is global “Asteroid Day”, an annual event designed to raise awareness about asteroids and what can be done to protect Earth from a possible impact. In honor of this event, the ESA co-hosted a live webcast with the European Southern Observatory to discuss the latest science news and research on asteroids. To watch a replay of the webcast, go to the ESA’s Asteroid Day webpage.

Further Reading: ESA, ESO, TED, Nature

Oumuamua was Just the Beginning. Astronomers Find an Interstellar Asteroid Orbiting Retrograde near Jupiter.

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) telescope in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid – I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Originally mistaken for a comet, follow-up observations conducted by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and others confirmed that ‘Oumuamua was actually a rocky body that had originated outside of our Solar System.

News of this interstellar asteroids, the first to ever be detected by astronomers, raised a lot of excitement. And according to a new study by an international pair of astronomers, ‘Oumuamua was not the Solar System’s first interstellar visitor. Whereas ‘Oumuamua was an interloper on its way to another star system, this latest object – known as Asteroid (514107) 2015 BZ509 – appears to be a long-term resident.

The study, titled “An interstellar origin for Jupiter’s retrograde co-orbital asteroid“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of Royal Astronomical Society: Letters. The study team consisted of Fathi Namouni, a researcher at Université Côte d’Azur and the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur; and Maria Helena Moreira Morais, a researcher from the Instituto de Geociências e Ciências Exatas at the Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP).

Images of 2015 BZ509 obtained at the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory (LBTO) that established its retrograde co-orbital nature (click on the image to see the animation). Credit: C. Veillet / Large Binocular Telescope Observatory.

After locating this asteroid, the team noticed something very interesting about it. All planets in our Solar System, and the vast majority of objects as well, orbit the Sun in the same direction. However, upon observing 2015 BZ509, the team concluded that it had a retrograde orbit – i.e. it rotated in the opposite direction as the other planets and objects. As Dr. Fathi Namouni, the lead author of the study, explained:

“How the asteroid came to move in this way while sharing Jupiter’s orbit has until now been a mystery. If 2015 BZ509 were a native of our system, it should have had the same original direction as all of the other planets and asteroids, inherited from the cloud of gas and dust that formed them.”

Using a high-resolution statistical search for stable orbits, the team found that 2015 BZ509 has been in its current orbital state since the formation of the Solar System – ca. 4.5 billion years ago. From this, they determined that the asteroid could not be indigenous to the Solar System since it would not have been able to assume its current large-inclination orbit – not when the nearby planets had early coplanar orbits and interacted with coplanar debris.

The only conclusion they could reach from these results was that this asteroid was captured from the interstellar medium 4.5 billion years ago. As Dr. Maria Helena Moreira Morais, the second author on the paper, added:

“Asteroid immigration from other star systems occurs because the Sun initially formed in a tightly-packed star cluster, where every star had its own system of planets and asteroids. The close proximity of the stars, aided by the gravitational forces of the planets, help these systems attract, remove and capture asteroids from one another.”

Based on their study, the team determined that 2015 BZ509  was acquired by our Solar System early in its history. Credit: NASA

The discovery of the first interstellar asteroid was certainly excited and led to multiple proposals for sending a mission to study it up close. The discovery of an interstellar asteroid that became a permanent resident in our system, however, has important implications for the study of planet formation, the evolution of the Solar System, and maybe even the origin of life itself – all of which remain open questions at this point.

Looking ahead, Dr. Namouni and Dr. Moraiswant hope to obtain more information on 2015 BZ509 so they might be able to determine exactly when it how it settled in the Solar System. In so doing, they will be able to provide clues about the Sun’s original star nursery, and about how our Early Solar System might have been enriched with components necessary for the appearance of life on Earth.

And who knows? We may soon discovery many more asteroid interlopers and long-term residents in the future. The study of these could provide even more information on the early history of our Solar System, how it interacted with neighboring systems, and how the basic ingredients for life (as we know it) came to be distributed. Perhaps the Rama enthusiasts had a point when they reminded us that the Ramans “do everything in threes”!

Further Reading: RAS, MNRAS

That Interstellar Asteroid ‘Oumuamua Probably Came From a Binary Star System

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) telescope in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid – I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Since that time, no effort has been spared to study this object before it leaves our Solar System. These include listening to it for signs of communications, determining its true nature and shape, and determining where it came from.

In fact, the question of this interstellar object’s origins has been mystery since it was first discovered. While astronomers are sure that it came from the direction of Vega and some details have been learned about its past, where it originated from remains unknown. But according to a new study by a team of astronomers from the University of Toronto, Scarborough, ‘Oumuamua may have originally come from a binary star system.

The study, titled “Ejection of rocky and icy material from binary star systems: Implications for the origin and composition of 1I/‘Oumuamua “, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The study was led by Alan P. Jackson, a research fellow at the Center for Planetary Sciences (CPS) at the University of Scarborough, and included members from both the CPS and the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA).

Oumuamua as it appeared using the William Herschel Telescope on the night of October 29. Credit: Queen’s University Belfast/William Herschel Telescope

For the sake of their study, Jackson and his co-authors considered how in single star systems (like our own), asteroids do not get ejected very often. For the most part, it is comets that become interstellar objects, mainly because they orbit the Sun at a greater distance and are less tightly bound by its gravity. And while ‘Oumuamua was initially mistaken for a comet, follow-up observations by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) indicated that it is  likely an asteroid.

With the help of other astronomers, it soon became apparent that ‘Oumuamua was likely an oddly-shaped rocky object that measured about 400 meters (1312 ft) long and was tube-shaped. These findings were rather surprising to astronomers. As Jackson explained in a recent Royal Astronomical Society press release:

“It’s really odd that the first object we would see from outside our system would be an asteroid, because a comet would be a lot easier to spot and the Solar System ejects many more comets than asteroids.”

As such, Jackson and his team hypothesized that interstellar objects like ‘Oumuamau are more likely to be ejected from a binary system. To test this theory, they constructed a population synthesis model that considered just how common binary star systems are in the Galaxy. They also conducted 2000 N-body simulations to see just how efficient such systems would be at ejecting objects like ‘Oumuamua.

Diagram showing the orbit of the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua as it passes through the Solar System. Credit: ESO/K. Meech et al.

What they found was that binary stars are produced at a rate of about 30% by number and 41% by mass, and that rocky objects like ‘Oumuamua are far more likely to be ejected from binary than single star systems. Based on ‘Oumuamua’s rocky composition, they also determined that the asteroid was likely ejected from the inner part of its solar system (i.e. inside the “Ice Line”) while the system was still in the process of formation.

Lastly, they determined that rocky objects are ejected from binary systems in comparable numbers to icy objects. This is based on the fact that the presence of a companion star would mean that more material would become unstable due to stellar encounters. In the end, this material would be more likely to be ejected rather than accreted to form planets, or take up residence in the outer reaches of the star system.

While there are still many unanswered questions about ‘Oumuamua, it remains the first interstellar asteroid that scientists have ever known. As such, its continued study can tell us a great deal about what lies beyond our Solar System. As Jackson put it:

“The same way we use comets to better understand planet formation in our own Solar System, maybe this curious object can tell us more about how planets form in other systems.”

The team’s findings were also the subject of a presentation that took place at the 49th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, which took place this week at The Woodlands, Texas.

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society, MNRAS

Interstellar Asteroid ‘Oumuamua Had a Violent Past

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) telescope in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid – I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Originally mistaken for a comet, follow-up observations conducted by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and others confirmed that ‘Oumuamua was actually a rocky body that had originated outside of our Solar System.

Since that time, multiple investigations have been conducted to determine ‘Oumuamua’s structure, composition, and just how common such visitors are. At the same time, a considerable amount of attention has been dedicated to determining the asteroid’s origins. According to a new study by a team of international researchers, this asteroid had a chaotic past that causes it to tumble around chaotically.

The study, titled “The tumbling rotational state of 1I/‘Oumuamua“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature Astronomy. The study was led by Wesley C. Fraser, a research fellow at the University of Queens Belfast’s Astrophysics Research Center, and included members from the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, the The Open University and the University of Belgrade.

As they indicate, the discovery of ‘Oumuamua has provided scientists with the first opportunity to study a planetesimal born in another planetary system. In much the same way that research into Near-Earth Asteroids, Main Belt Asteroids, or Jupiter’s Trojans can teach astronomers about the history and evolution of our Solar System, the study of a ‘Oumuamua would provide hints as to what was going on when and where it formed.

For the sake of their study, Dr. Fraser and his international team of colleagues have been measuring ‘Oumuamua brightness since it was first discovered. What they found was that ‘Oumuamua wasn’t spinning periodically (like most small asteroids and planetesimals in our Solar System), but chaotically. What this means is that the asteroid has likely been tumbling through space for billions of years, an indication of a violent past.

While it is unclear why this is, Dr. Fraser and his colleagues suspect that it might be due to an impact. In other words, when ‘Oumuamua was thrown from its own system and into interstellar space, it is possible it collided violently with another rock. As Dr. Fraser explained in a Queen’s University Belfast press release:

“Our modelling of this body suggests the tumbling will last for many billions of years to hundreds of billions of years before internal stresses cause it to rotate normally again. While we don’t know the cause of the tumbling, we predict that it was most likely sent tumbling by an impact with another planetesimal in its system, before it was ejected into interstellar space.”

These latest findings mirror what other studies have been able to determine about ‘Oumuamua based on its object changes in its brightness. For example, brightness measurements conducted by the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii – and using data from the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) – confirmed that the asteroid was indeed interstellar in origin, and that its shape is highly elongated (i.e. very long and thin).

However, measurements of its color have produced little up until now other than confusion. This was due to the fact that the color appeared to vary between measurements. When the long face of the object is facing telescopes on Earth, it appears largely red, while the rest of the body has appeared neutral in color (like dirty snow). Based on their analysis, Dr. Fraser and his team resolved this mystery by indicating that the surface is “spotty”.

In essence, most of the surface reflects neutrally, but one of its long faces has a large red region – indicating the presence of tholins on its long surface. A common feature of bodies in the outer Solar System, tholins are organic compounds (i.e. methane and ethane) that have turned a deep shade of reddish-brown thanks to their exposure to ultra-violet radiation.

What this indicates, according to Dr. Fraser, is broad compositional variations on ‘Oumuamua, which is unusual for such a small body:

“We now know that beyond its unusual elongated shape, this space cucumber had origins around another star, has had a violent past, and tumbles chaotically because of it. Our results are really helping to paint a more complete picture of this strange interstellar interloper. It is quite unusual compared to most asteroids and comets we see in our own solar system,” comments Dr Fraser.

Oumuamua as it appeared using the William Herschel Telescope on the night of October 29. Queen’s University Belfast/William Herschel Telescope

To break it down succinctly, ‘Oumuamua may have originated closer to its parent star (hence its rocky composition) and was booted out by strong resonances. In the course of leaving its system, it collided with another asteroid, which sent it tumbling towards interstellar space. It’s current chaotic spin and its unusual color are both testaments to this turbulent past, and indicate that its home system and the Solar System have a few things in common.

Since its arrival in our system, ‘Oumuamua has set off a flurry of scientific research. All over the world, astronomers are hoping to get a glimpse of it before it leaves our Solar System, and there are even those who hope to mount a robotic mission to rendezvous with it before its beyond our reach (Project Lyra). In any event, we can expect that this interstellar visitor will be the basis of scientific revelations for years to come!

This study is the third to be published by their team, which has been monitoring ‘Oumuamua since it was first observed in October. All studies were conducted with support provided by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

Further Reading: Queen’s University Belfast

The Solar System Probably has Thousands of Captured Interstellar Asteroids

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid, named 1I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Originally thought to be a comet, this interstellar visitor quickly became the focus of follow-up studies that sought to determine its origin, structure, composition, and rule out the possibility that it was an alien spacecraft!

While ‘Oumuamua is the first known example of an interstellar asteroid reaching our Solar System, scientists have long suspected that such visitors are a regular occurrence. Aiming to determine just how common, a team of researchers from Harvard University conducted a study to measure the capture rate of interstellar asteroids and comets, and what role they may play in the spread of life throughout the Universe.

The study, titled “Implications of Captured Interstellar Objects for Panspermia and Extraterrestrial Life“, recently appeared online and is being considered for publication in The Astrophysical Journal. The study was conducted by Manasavi Lingam, a postdoc at the Harvard Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC), and Abraham Loeb, the chairman of the ITC and a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

For the sake of their study, Lingam and Loeb constructed a three-body gravitational model, where the physics of three bodies are used to compute their respective trajectories and interactions with one another. In Lingam and Loeb’s model, Jupiter and the Sun served as the two massive bodies while a far less massive interstellar object served as the third. As Dr. Loeb explained to Universe Today via email:

“The combined gravity of the Sun and Jupiter acts as a ‘fishing net’. We suggest a new approach to searching for life, which is to examine the interstellar objects captured by this fishing net instead of the traditional approach of looking through telescope or traveling with spacecrafts to distant environments to do the same.”

Using this model, the pair then began calculating the rate at which objects comparable in size to ‘Oumuamua would be captured by the Solar System, and how often such objects would collide with the Earth over the course of its entire history. They also considered the Alpha Centauri system as a separate case for the sake of comparison. In this binary system, Alpha Centauri A and B serve as the two massive bodies and an interstellar asteroid as the third.

As Dr. Lingam indicated:

“The frequency of these objects is determined from the number density of such objects, which has been recently updated based on the discovery of ‘Oumuamua. The size distribution of these objects is unknown (and serves as a free parameter in our model), but for the sake of obtaining quantitative results, we assumed that it was similar to that of comets within our Solar System.”

The theory of Lithopanspermia states that life can be shared between planets within a planetary system. Credit: NASA

In the end, they determined that a few thousands captured objects might be found within the Solar system at any time – the largest of which would be tens of km in radius. For the Alpha Centauri system, the results were even more interesting. Based on the likely rate of capture, and the maximum size of a captured object, they determined that even Earth-sized objects could have been captured in the course of the system’s history.

In other words, Alpha Centauri may have picked up some rogue planets over time, which would have had drastic impact on the evolution  of the system. In this vein, the authors also explored how objects like ‘Oumuamua could have played a role in the distribution of life throughout the Universe via rocky bodies. This is a variation on the theory of lithopanspermia, where microbial life is shared between planets thanks to asteroids, comets and meteors.

In this scenario, interstellar asteroids, which originate in distant star systems, would be the be carriers of microbial life from one system to another. If such asteroids collided with Earth in the past, they could be responsible for seeding our planet and leading to the emergence of life as we know it. As Lingam explained:

“These interstellar objects could either crash directly into a planet and thus seed it with life, or be captured into the planetary system and undergo further collisions within that system to yield interplanetary panspermia (the second scenario is more likely when the captured object is large, for e.g. a fraction of the Earth’s radius).”

In addition, Lingam and Loeb offered suggestions on how future visitors to our Solar System could be studied. As Lingam summarized, the key would be to look for specific kinds of spectra from objects in our Solar Systems:

“It may be possible to look for interstellar objects (captured/unbound) in our Solar system by looking at their trajectories in detail. Alternatively, since many objects within the Solar system have similar ratios of oxygen isotopes, finding objects with very different isotopic ratios could indicate their interstellar origin. The isotope ratios can be determined through high-resolution spectroscopy if and when interstellar comets approach close to the Sun.”

“The simplest way to single out the objects who originated outside the Solar System, is to examine the abundance ratio of oxygen isotopes in the water vapor that makes their cometary tails,” added Loeb. “This can be done through high resolution spectroscopy. After identifying a trapped interstellar object, we could launch a probe that will search on its surface for signatures of primitive life or artifacts of a technological civilization.”

It would be no exaggeration to say that the discovery of ‘Oumuamua has set off something of a revolution in astronomy. In addition to validating something astronomers have long suspected, it has also provided new opportunities for research and the testing of scientific theories (such as lithopanspermia).

In the future, with any luck, robotic missions will be dispatched to these bodies to conduct direct studies and maybe even sample return missions. What these reveal about our Universe, and maybe even the spread of life throughout, is sure to be very illuminating!

Further Reading: arXiv

Updates on ‘Oumuamua. Maybe it’s a Comet, Actually. Oh, and no Word From Aliens.

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar object, named 1I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). After originally hypothesizing that it was a comet, observations performed by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and other astronomers indicated that it was likely a strange-looking asteroid measuring about 400 meters (1312 ft) long.

Since that time, multiple surveys have been conducted to determine the true nature of this asteroid, which have included studies of its composition to Breakthrough Listen‘s proposal to listen to it for signs of radio transmissions. And according to the latest findings, it seems that ‘Oumuamua may actually be more icy than previously thought (thus indicated that it is a comet) and is not an alien spacecraft as some had hoped.

The first set of findings were presented in a study that was recently published in the scientific journal Nature, titled “Spectroscopy and thermal modelling of the first interstellar object 1I/2017 U1 ‘Oumuamua“. The study was led by Alan Fitzsimmons of Queen’s University Belfast, and included members from The Open University in Milton Keynes, the Institute for Astronomy (IfA) at the University of Hawaii, and the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

‘Oumuamua, as imaged by the William Herschel Telescope on October 29th, 2017. Credit: Queen’s University Belfast/William Herschel Telescope

As they indicate in their study, the team relied on information from the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and the William Herschel Telescope in La Palma. Using these instruments, they were able to obtain spectra from sunlight reflected off of ‘Oumuamua within 48 hours of the discovery. This revealed vital information about the composition of the object, and pointed towards it being icy rather than rocky. As Fitzsimmons explained in op-ed piece in The Conversation:

“Our data revealed its surface was red in visible light but appeared more neutral or grey in infra-red light. Previous laboratory experiments have shown this is the kind of reading you’d expect from a surface made of comet ices and dust that had been exposed to interstellar space for millions or billions of years. High-energy particles called cosmic rays dry out the surface by removing the ices. These particles also drive chemical reactions in the remaining material to form a crust of chemically organic (carbon-based) compounds.”

These findings not only addressed a long-standing question about ‘Oumuamua true nature, it also addresses the mystery of why the object did not experience outgassing as it neared our Sun. Typically, comets experience sublimation as they get closer to a star, which results in the formation of a gaseous envelope (aka. “halo”). The presence of an outer layer of carbon-rich material would explain why this didn’t happen ‘Oumuamua.

They further conclude that the red layer of material could be the result of its interstellar journey. As Fitzsommons explained, “another study using the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii showed its color is similar to some ‘trans-Neptunian objects’ orbiting in the outskirts of our solar system, whose surfaces may have been similarly transformed.” This red coloring is due to the presence of tholins, which form when organic molecules like methane are exposed to ultra-violet radiation.

Similarly, another enduring mystery about this object was resolved thanks to the recent efforts of Breakthrough Listen. As part of Breakthrough Initiatives’ attempts to explore the Universe and search for signs of Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (ETI), this project recently conducted a survey of ‘Oumuamua to determine if there were any signs of radio communications coming from it.

While previous studies had all indicated that the object was natural in origin, this survey was more about validating the sophisticated instruments that Listen relies upon. The observation campaign began on Wednesday, December 13th, at 3:00 pm EST (12:00 PST) using the Robert C. Byrd Greenbank Radio Telescope, the world’s premiere single-dish radio telescope located in West Virginia.

The observations period was divided into four “epochs” (based on the object’s rotational period), the first of which ran from 3:45 pm to 9:45 pm ET (12:45 pm to 6:45 pm PST) on Dec 13th, and last for ten hours. During this time, the observation team monitored ‘Oumuamua across four radio bands, ranging from the 1 to 12 GHz bands. In addition to calibrating the instrument, the survey accumulated 90 terabytes of raw data over after observing ‘Oumuamua itself for two hours.

The initial results and data were released last week (Dec. 13th) and are available through the Breakthrough Listen archive. As Andrew Siemion – the Director of Berkeley SETI Research Center who took part in the survey – indicated in a Breakthrough Initiatives press release:

“It is great to see data pouring in from observations of this novel and interesting source. Our team is excited to see what additional observations and analyses will reveal”.

So far, no signals have been detected, but the analysis is far from complete. This is being conducted by Listen’s “turboSETI” pipeline, which combs the data for narrow bandwidth signals that are drifting in frequency. This consists of filtering out interference signals from human sources, then matching the rate at which signals drift relative to the expected drift caused by ‘Oumuamua’s own motion.

In so doing, the software attempts to identify any signals that might be coming from ‘Oumuamua itself. So far, data from the S-band receiver (frequencies ranging from 1.7 to 2.6 GHz) has been processed, and analysis of the remaining three bands – which corresponds to receivers L, X, and C is ongoing. But at the moment, the results seem to indicate that ‘Oumuamua is indeed a natural object – and an interstellar comet to boot.

This is certainly bad news for those who were hoping that ‘Oumuamua might be a massive cylinder-shaped generation ship or some alien space probe sent to communicate with the whales! I guess first contact – and hence, proof we are NOT alone in the Universe – is something we’ll have to wait a little longer for.

Further Reading: The Conversation, Nature, Breakthrough Initiatives

Breakthrough Listen is Going to Scan ‘Oumuamua, You Know, Just to be Sure it’s Just an Asteroid and Not a Spaceship.

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid, named 1I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Based on subsequent measurements of its shape (highly elongated and thin), there was some speculation that it might actually be an interstellar spacecraft (the name “Rama” ring a bell?).

For this reason, there are those who would like to study this object before it heads back out into interstellar space. While groups like Project Lyra propose sending a mission to rendezvous with it, Breakthrough Initiatives (BI) also announced its plans to study the object using Breakthrough Listen. As part of its mission to search for extra-terrestrial communications, this project will use the Greenbank Radio Telescope to listen to ‘Oumuamua for signs of radio transmissions.

Observations of ‘Oumuamua’s orbit revealed that it made its closest pass to our Sun back in September of 2017, and has been on its way back to interstellar space ever since. When it was observed back in October, it was passing Earth at a distance of about 85 times the distance between Earth and the Moon, and was traveling at a peak velocity of about 315,430 km/h (196,000 mph).

This indicated that, unlike the many Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) that periodically cross Earth’s orbit, this asteroid was not gravitationally bound to the Sun. In November, astronomers using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile were also able to determine the brightness and color of the asteroid, which allowed for precise calculations of its size and shape.

Basically, they determined that it was 400 meters (1312 ft) long and very narrow, indicating that it was shaped somewhat like a cigar. What’s more, the idea of a cigar or needle-shaped spacecraft is a time-honored concept when it comes to science fiction and space exploration. Such a ship would minimize friction and damage from interstellar gas and dust, and could rotate to provide artificial gravity.

For all of these reasons, it is understandable why some responded to news of this asteroid by making comparisons to a certain science fiction novel. That would be Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, a story of a cylindrical space ship that travels through the Solar System while on its way to another star. While a natural origin is the more likely scenario, there is no consensus on what the origin this object might be – other than the theory that it came from the direction of Vega.

Hence why Breakthrough Listen intends to explore ‘Oumuamua to determine whether it is truly an asteroid or an artifact. Established in January of 2016, Listen is the largest scientific research program aimed at finding evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence with established SETI methods. These include using radio observatories to survey 1,000,000 of the closest stars (and 100 of the closest galaxies) to Earth over the course of ten years.

Breakthrough Listen will monitor the 1 million closest stars to Earth over a ten year period. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

Listen’s observation campaign will begin on Wednesday, December 13th, at 3:00 pm EST (12:00 PST), using the Greenbank Radio Telescope. This 100-meter telescope is the world’s premiere single-dish radio telescope and is capable of operating at millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths. It is also the mainstay of the NSF-funded Green Bank Observatory, located in West Virginia.

The first phase of observations will last a total of 10 hours, ranging from the 1 to 12 GHz bands, and will broken down into four “epochs” (based on the object’s rotational period). At present, ‘Oumuamua is about 2 astronomical units (AUs) – or 299,200,000 km; 185,900,000 mi – away from Earth, putting it at twice the distance between the Earth and the Sun. This places it well beyond the orbit of Mars, and over halfway between Mars and Jupiter.

At this distance, the Green Bank Telescope will take less than a minute to detect an omni-directional transmitter with the power of a cellphone. In other words, if there is a alien signal coming from this object, Breakthrough Listen is sure to sniff it out in no time! As Andrew Siemion, Director of Berkeley SETI Research Center and a member of Breakthrough Listen, explained in a BI press statement:

“‘Oumuamua’s presence within our solar system affords Breakthrough Listen an opportunity to reach unprecedented sensitivities to possible artificial transmitters and demonstrate our ability to track nearby, fast-moving objects. Whether this object turns out to be artificial or natural, it’s a great target for Listen.”

Even if there are no signals to be heard, and no other evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence is detected, the observations themselves are a opportunity for scientists and the field of radio astronomy in general. The project will observe ‘Oumuamua in portions of the radio spectrum that it has not yet been observed at, and is expected to yield information about the possibility of water ice or the presence of a “coma” (i.e. gaseous envelop) around the object.

During the previous survey, data gathered using the VLT’s FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph (FORS) indicated that ‘Oumuamua was likely a dense and rocky asteroid with a high metal content and little in the way of water ice. Updated information provided by the Greenbank Telescope could therefore confirm or cast doubt on this, thus reopening the possibility that it is actually a comet.

Regardless of what it finds, this survey is likely to be a feather in the cap of Breakthrough Listen, which already demonstrated it’s worth in terms of non-SETI astronomy this past summer. At that time, and using the Green Bank Radio Telescope, the Listen science team at UC Berkeley observed 15 Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) for the fist time coming from a dwarf galaxy three billion light-years from Earth.

Still, I think we can all agree that an extra-terrestrial spaceship would be the most exciting possibility (and perhaps the most frightening!). And it is very safe to say that some of us will be awaiting the results of the survey with baited breath. Luckily, we’ll only have to wait two more days to see if humanity is still alone in the Universe or not! Stay tuned!

Further Reading: Breakthrough Initiatives

Project Lyra, a Mission to Chase Down that Interstellar Asteroid

Back in October, the announcement of the first interstellar asteroid triggered a flurry of excitement. Since that time, astronomers have conducted follow-up observations of the object known as 1I/2017 U1 (aka. `Oumuamua) and noted some rather interesting things about it. For example, from rapid changes in its brightness, it has been determined that the asteroid is rocky and metallic, and rather oddly-shaped.

Observations of the asteroid’s orbit have also revealed that it made its closest pass to our Sun back in September of 2017, and it is currently on its way back to interstellar space. Because of the mysteries this body holds, there are those who are advocating that it be intercepted and explored. One such group is Project Lyra, which recently released a study detailing the challenges and benefits such a mission would present.

The study, which recently appeared online under the title “Project Lyra: Sending a Spacecraft to 1I/’Oumuamua (former A/2017 U1), the Interstellar Asteroid“, was conducted by members of the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4iS) – a volunteer organization that is dedicated to making interstellar space travel a reality in the near future. The study was supported by Asteroid Initiatives LLC, an asteroid-prospecting company that is dedicated to facilitating the exploration and commercial exploitation of asteroids.

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

To recap, when `Oumuamua was first observed on October 19th, 2017, by astronomers using the University of Hawaii’s Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS), the object (then known as C/2017 U1) was initially believed to be a comet. However, subsequent observations revealed that it was actually an asteroid and it was renamed 1I/2017 U1 (or 1I/`Oumuamua).

Follow-up observations made using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) were able to place constraints on the asteroid’s size, brightness, composition, color and orbit. These revealed that `Oumuamua measured some 400 meters (1312 feet) long, is very elongated, and spins on its axis every 7.3 hours – as indicated by the way its brightness varies by a factor of ten.

It was also determined to be rocky and metal rich, and to contain traces of tholins – organic molecules that have been irradiated by UV radiation. The asteroid also has an extremely hyperbolic orbit – with an eccentricity of 1.2 – which is currently taking it out of our Solar System. Preliminary calculations of its orbit also indicated that it originally came from the general direction of Vega, the brightest star in the northern constellation of Lyra.

Given that this asteroid is extra-solar in nature, a mission that would be capable of studying it up close could certainly tell us a great deal about the system in which it formed. It’s arrival in our system has also raised awareness about extra-solar asteroids, a new class of interstellar object that astronomers now estimate arrive in our system at a rate of about one per year.

Because of this, the team behind Project Lyra believe that studying 1I/`Oumuamua would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As they state in their study:

“As 1I/‘Oumuamua is the nearest macroscopic sample of interstellar material, likely with an isotopic signature distinct from any other object in our solar system, the scientific returns from sampling the object are hard to understate. Detailed study of interstellar materials at interstellar distances are likely decades away, even if Breakthrough Initiatives’ Project Starshot, for example, is vigorously pursued. Hence, an interesting question is if there is a way to exploit this unique opportunity by sending a spacecraft to 1I/‘Oumuamua to make observations at close range.”

But of course, rendezvousing with this asteroid presents many challenges. The most obvious is that of speed, and the fact that 1I/`Oumuamua is already on its way out of our Solar System. Based on calculations of the asteroid’s orbit, it has been determined that 1I/`Oumuamua is traveling at a speed of 26 km/s – which works out to 95,000 km/hour (59,000 mph).

No mission in the history of space exploration has traveled this fast, and the fastest missions to date have only been able to manage about two-thirds that speed. This includes the fastest spaceship to leave the Solar System (Voyager 1) and the fastest spaceship at launch (the New Horizons mission). So creating a mission that could catch up to it would be a major challenge. As the team wrote:

“This [is] considerably faster than any object humanity has ever launched into space. Voyager 1, the fastest object humanity has ever built, has a hyperbolic excess velocity of 16.6 km/s. As 1I/‘Oumuamua is already leaving our solar system, any spacecraft launched in the future would need to chase it.”

However, as they go on to state, taking on this challenge would inevitably result in key innovations and developments in space exploration technology. Obviously, the launch of such a mission would need to happen sooner other than later, given the asteroid’s rapid rate of travel. But any mission that is launched within a few years’ time will not be able to take advantage of later technical developments.

As famed writer Paul Glister, one of the founders of the Tau Zero Foundation and the creator of Centauri Dreams, noted on his website:

“The challenge is formidable: 1I/’Oumuamua has a hyperbolic excess velocity of 26 km/s, which translates to a velocity of 5.5 AU/year. It will be beyond Saturn’s orbit within two years. This is much faster than any object humanity has ever launched into space.”

As such, any mission mounted to 1I/`Oumuamua would entail three notable trade-offs. These include the trade-off between travel time and delta V (i.e. the velocity of the spacecraft), the trade-off between the launch date and travel time, and the trade-off between the launch date/trip time and the characteristic energy. Characteristic energy (C3) refers to the square of the hyperbolic excess velocity, or the velocity at infinity with respect to the Sun.

Diagram showing the orbit of the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua as it passes through the Solar System. Credit: ESO/K. Meech et al.

Last, but not least, is the trade-off between the spacecraft’s excess velocity at launch and its excess velocity relative to the asteroid during the encounter. Excess velocity is preferable at launch, since it will result in shorter travel times. But a high excess velocity during the encounter would mean the spacecraft would have less time to conduct measurements and gather data on the asteroid itself.

With all that accounted for, the team then considers various possibilities for creating a spacecraft that would rely on an impulsive propulsion system (i.e. one with sufficiently short-duration thrust). In addition, they assume that this mission would not involve any planetary or solar fly-bys, and would fly directly to 1I/`Oumuamua. From this, some basic parameters are established which they then lay out.

“To summarize, the difficulty of reaching 1I/‘Oumuamua is a function of when to launch, the hyperbolic excess velocity, and the mission duration,” they indicate. “Future mission designers would need to find appropriate trade-offs between these parameters. For a realistic launch date in 5 to 10 years, the hyperbolic excess velocity is of the order of 33 to up to 76 km/s with an encounter at a distance far beyond Pluto (50-200AU).”

Last, but not least, the authors consider various mission architectures that are currently being developed. These include those that would prioritize urgency (i.e. launching within a few years’ time), like NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) – which they claim would simplify the design of the mission. Another is SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), which they claim could enable a direct mission by 2025 thanks to its in-space refueling technique.

Artist’s impression of the ITS (BFR) conducting a service run to the ISS. Credit: SpaceX

However, these types of missions would also require a Jupiter flyby in order to provide a gravity-assist. Looking to more long-term techniques, which would emphasize more advanced technologies, they also consider solar sail-driven technology. This is exemplified by Breakthrough Initiatives’ Starshot concept, which would provide mission flexibility and the ability to react quickly to future unexpected events.

While this approach would entail waiting, possibility for future encounters with an interstellar asteroid, it would allow for quick response and a mission that could do away with gravity assists. It could also enable a particularly attractive mission concept, which is to send tiny swarms of probes to rendezvous with the asteroid. While this would entail significant investment, the value of the infrastructure would justify the expense, they claim.

In the end, the team determined that further research and development is necessary, which underwrites the importance of Project Lyra. As they concluded:
“[A] mission to the object will stretch the boundary of what is technologically possible today. A mission using conventional chemical propulsion system would be feasible using a Jupiter flyby to gravity- assist into a close encounter with the Sun. Given the right materials, solar sail technology or laser sails could be used… Future work within Project Lyra will focus on analyzing the different mission concepts and technology options in more detail and to down select 2 – 3 promising concepts for further development.”

It is an age-old axiom that daunting challenges are essential to innovation and change. In this respect, the appearance of `Oumuamua in our Solar System has stimulated interest in exploring interstellar asteroids. And while an opportunity to explore this asteroid may not be possible in the next few years, the arrival of future rocky interlopers in our System might just be reachable.

Further Reading: arXiv, Centauri Dreams

That Interstellar Asteroid is Probably Pretty Strange Looking

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) telescope in Hawaii picked up the first interstellar asteroid, named 1I/2017 U1 (aka. `Oumuamua). After originally being mistaken for a comet, observations performed by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and other astronomers indicated that it was actually an asteroid that measures about 400 meters (1312 ft) long.

Thanks to data obtained by the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, the brightness, color and orbit of this asteroid have been precisely determined. And according to a new study led by Dr. Karen Meech of the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii, `Oumuamua is unlike any other asteroid we’ve ever seen, in that its shape is highly elongated (i.e. very long and thin).

The study, titled “A Brief Visit From a Red and Extremely Elongated Interstellar Asteroid“, appeared today (Nov. 20th) in the scientific journal Nature. Led by Dr. Meech, the team included members from the European Southern Observatory, the Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, the European Space Agency’s SSA-NEO Coordination Center, and the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.

The VLT was intrinsic to the combined effort to characterize the fast-moving asteroid rapidly, as it needed to be observed before it passed back into interstellar space again. Based on initial calculations of `Oumuamua’s orbit, astronomers had determined that it had already passed the closest point in its orbit to the Sun in September of 2017. Together with other large telescopes, the VLT captured images of the asteroid using its FORS instrument.

What these revealed was that `Oumuamua varies dramatically in terms of brightness (by a factor of ten) as it spins on its axis every 7.3 hours. As Dr. Meech explained in an ESO press release, this was both surprising and highly significant:

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 colour, similar to objects in the outer Solar System, and confirmed that it is completely inert, without the faintest hint of dust around it.

These observations also allowed Dr. Meech and her team to constrain Oumuamua’s composition and basic properties. Essentially, the asteroid is now believed to be a dense and rocky asteroid with a high metal content and little in the way of water ice. It’s dark and reddened surface is also an indication of tholins, which are the result of organic molecules (like methane) being irradiated by cosmic rays for millions of years.

Unlike other asteroids that have been studied in Near-Earth space and the Solar System at large, `Oumuamua is unique in that it is not bound by the Sun’s gravity. In addition to originating outside of our Solar System, its hyperbolic orbit – which has an eccentricity of 1.2 – means that it will head back out into interstellar space after its brief encounter with our Solar System.

Based on preliminary calculations of its orbit, astronomers have deduced that it came from the general direction of Vega, the brightest star in the northern constellation of Lyra. Traveling at a whopping speed of 95,000 km/hour (59,000 mph), `Oumuamua would have left the Vega system about 300,000 years ago. However, it is also possible that the asteroid may have originated somewhere else entirely, wandering the Milky Way for millions of years.

Astronomers estimate that interstellar asteroids like `Oumuamua pass through the inner Solar System at a rate of about once a year. But until now, they have been too faint and difficult to detect in visible light, and have therefore gone unnoticed. It is only recently that survey telescopes like Pan-STARRS have been powerful enough to have a chance at detecting them.

Hence what makes this discovery so significant in the first place. As the first asteroid of its kind to be detected, further improvements in our instruments will it make it easier to spot the others that are sure to be on the way. And as Olivier Hainaut – a researcher with the ESO and a co-author on the study – indicated, there’s plenty more to be learned from `Oumuamua as well:

“We are continuing to observe this unique object, and we hope to more accurately pin down where it came from and where it is going next on its tour of the galaxy,” he said. “And now that we have found the first interstellar rock, we are getting ready for the next ones!”

And be sure to enjoy this ESOcast video about `Oumuamua, courtesy of the ESO:

Further Reading: ESO, Nature