Earth and the Moon Might Have Captured an Old Upper Stage Rocket

Back in September, the Pan-STARRS1 survey telescope noticed an object that followed a slight but distinctly curved path in the sky, a telltale sign that it was captured by Earth’s gravity. Initially, this object was thought to be a near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) and was given a standard designation by the Minor Planet Center (2020 SO). However, the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA JPL had another theory.

Based on its orbit and the way solar radiation appeared to be pushing it off course, NASA scientists have since concluded that the object might actually be the spent upper stage booster of the Centaur rocket that launched the Surveyor 2 spacecraft towards the Moon in 1966. This finding could have implications for future surveys that pick up mysterious objects near Earth (‘Oumuamua occur).

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The Most Comprehensive 3D Map of Galaxies Has Been Released

Atop the summit of Haleakala on the Hawaiian island of Maui sits the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, or Pan-STARRS1 (PS1). As part of the Haleakala Observatory overseen by the University of Hawaii, Pan-STARRS1 relies on a system of cameras, telescopes, and a computing facility to conduct an optical imaging survey of the sky, as well as astrometry and photometry of know objects.

In 2018, the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Institute for Astronomy (IfA) released the PS1 3pi survey, the world’s largest digital sky survey that spanned three-quarters of the sky and encompassed 3 billion objects. And now, a team of astronomers from the IfA have used this data to create the Pan-STARRS1 Source Types and Redshifts with Machine Learning (PS1-STRM), the world’s largest three-dimensional astronomical catalog.

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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

Beyond Neptune, A Chunk Of Ice Is Orbiting The Sun In The Wrong Direction

Beyond the orbit of Neptune, the farthest recognized-planet from our Sun, lies the mysteries population known as the Trans-Neptunian Object (TNOs). For years, astronomers have been discovering bodies and minor planets in this region which are influenced by Neptune’s gravity, and orbit our Sun at an average distance of 30 Astronomical Units.

In recent years, several new TNOs have been discovered that have caused us to rethink what constitutes a planet, not to mention the history of the Solar System. The most recent of these mystery objects is called “Niku”, a small chunk of ice that takes its name for the Chinese word for “rebellious”. And while many such objects exist beyond the orbit of Neptune, it is this body’s orbital properties that really make it live up to the name!

In a paper recently submitted to arXiv, the international team of astronomers that made the discovery explain how they found the TNO using the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System 1 Survey (Pan-STARRS 1). Measuring just 200 km (124 miles) in diameter, this object’s orbit is tilted 110° to the plane of the Solar system and orbits the Sun backwards.

An artist's concept of a trans-Neptunian object(TNOs). The distant sun is reduced to a bright star at a distance of over 3 billion miles. The Dark Energy Survey (DES) has now released discovery of more TNOs. (Illustration Credit: NASA)
An artist’s concept of a trans-Neptunian object(TNOs). The distant sun is reduced to a bright star at a distance of over 3 billion miles. Credit: NASA

Ordinarily, when planetary systems form, angular momentum forces everything to spin in the same direction. Hence why, when viewed from the celestial north pole, all the objects in our Solar System appear to be orbiting the Sun in a counter-clockwise direction. So when objects orbit the Sun in the opposite direction, an outside factor must be at play.

What’s more, the team compared the orbit of Niku with other high-inclination TNOs and Centaurs, and noticed that they occupy a common orbital plane and experience a clustering effect. As Dr. Matthew J. Holman – a professor at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and one of the researchers on the team – told Universe Today via email:

“The orbit of Niku is unusual in that it is nearly perpendicular to the plane of the Solar System.  More than that, it is orbiting in the opposite direction of most Solar System bodies. Furthermore, there are a few bodies that share the same or orbital plane, with some orbiting prograde and some orbiting retrograde. That was unexpected.”

One possibility, which the team has already considered, was that this mysterious orbital pattern might be evidence of the much sought-after Planet Nine. This hypothetical planet, which is believed to exist at the outer edge of our Solar System (20 times further from our Sun than Neptune), if it exists, is also thought to be 10 times the size of the Earth.

Artist's impression of Planet Nine as an ice giant eclipsing the central Milky Way, with a star-like Sun in the distance. Neptune's orbit is shown as a small ellipse around the Sun. The sky view and appearance are based on the conjectures of its co-proposer, Mike Brown.
Artist’s impression of Planet Nine as an ice giant eclipsing the central Milky Way, with a star-like Sun in the distance. Neptune’s orbit is shown as a small ellipse around the Sun. Credit: ESO/Tomruen/nagualdesign

“Planet Nine seems to be gravitationally influencing another nearby population of bodies that are also orbiting nearly perpendicular to the plane of the solar system,” said Holman, “but those objects have much larger orbits that also come closer to sun at their closest approach. The similarity (perpendicular) nature of Niku’s orbit to that of the more distant population hints at a connection.”

Establishing such a connection based on the orbits of distant objects is certainly tempting, especially since no direct evidence of Planet Nine has been obtained yet. However, upon further analysis, the team concluded that Niku is too close to the rest of the Solar System for its orbit to be effected by Planet Nine.

In addition, the orbits of the clustered objects that circle the sun backwards along the same 110-degree plane path was seen as a further indication that something else is probably at work. Then again, it may very well be that there is a giant planet out there, and that it’s influence is mitigated by other factors we are not yet aware of.

“The population of objects in Niku-like orbits is not long-term stable,” said Holman. “We hoped that adding the gravitational influence of an object like Planet Nine might stabilize their orbits, but that turned out not to be the case. We are NOT ruling out Planet Nine, but we are not finding any direct evidence for it, at least with this investigation.”

Animated diagram showing the spacing of the Solar Systems planet’s, the unusually closely spaced orbits of six of the most distant KBOs, and the possible “Planet 9”. Credit: Caltech/nagualdesign
Animated diagram showing the spacing of the Solar Systems planet’s, the unusually closely spaced orbits of six of the most distant KBOs, and the possible “Planet 9”. Credit: Caltech/nagualdesign

So for the time being, it looks like Planet Nine enthusiasts are going to have to wait for some other form of confirmation. But as Konstantin Batyagin – the Caltech astronomer who announced findings that hinted at Planet Nine earlier this year – was quoted as saying, this discovery is yet another step in the direction of a more complete understanding of the outer Solar System:

“Whenever you have some feature that you can’t explain in the outer solar system, it’s immensely exciting because it’s in some sense foreshadowing a new development. As they say in the paper, what they have right now is a hint. If this hint develops into a complete story that would be fantastic.”

Whatever the cause of Niku’s strange orbit (or those TNOs that share its orbital pattern) may be, it is clear that there is more going on in the outer Solar System than we thought. And with every new discovery, and every new object catalogued by astronomers, we are bettering our understanding of the dynamics that are at work out there.

In the meantime, perhaps we’ll just need to send some additional missions out that way. We have nothing to lose but our preconceived notions! And be sure to enjoy this video about this latest find, courtesy of New Scientist:

Further Reading: arXiv