Back in October, NASA discovered an asteroid in our solar system that came from somewhere else in space — our very first “interstellar visitor.” Since the object was spotted, astronomers have been hard at work figuring out what it is. But now, they might actually have some answers.
While the future of the asteroid — called ‘Oumuamua — may not be quite written in the stars, it may be worth getting to know the newest member of our solar system if it plans on sticking around for a little while.
So What the Heck is This Thing?
This interstellar visitor is a “rocky, cigar-shaped object with a somewhat reddish hue,” NASA said Monday. Astronomers who first spotted the asteroid on October 19 from a NASA telescope at the University of Hawaii have named the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua, which translates to “a messenger from afar arriving first” in Hawaiian.
In its first statement about the object since its discovery, NASA concluded that what they saw is an asteroid that’s likely been wandering through the galaxy “for hundreds of millions of years before its chance encounter with our star system.”
As of Monday, ‘Oumuamua is traveling at 85,700 miles per hour and about 124 million miles away from the Earth, NASA says. Scientists estimate the asteroid is about a quarter-mile long made up of rock and maybe even metals.
Where Do Scientists Think it Came From?
According to NASA, the object seems to have come from the direction of Vega, one of the stars that makes up the constellation Lyra. Still, scientists aren’t really sure: the asteroid’s trajectory shows it would have been at Vega around 300,000 years ago, and that star was in a different location back then.
Astronomers say ‘Oumuamua may not have been the first interstellar asteroid in our solar system, but modern advancements in telescopes and technology have only made it recently possible to spot these objects in transit.
Why Do We Care?
For all intents and purposes, ‘Oumuamua is a first for our solar system. NASA said its discovery could open up new ways of studying other solar systems in space — though it didn’t elaborate on how. In any case, the space agency says the asteroid’s cylindrical shape — which is pretty unusual — may be able to “provide new clues into how other solar systems formed.”
Where’s it Heading Next?
Unfortunately, ‘Oumuamua is on its way out of our solar system. NASA estimates the asteroid will pass Jupiter in May 2018, Saturn in January 2019, and then depart our solar system en route to the constellation Pegasus.
Although it may not be visible any longer from Earth’s telescopes once it leaves the solar system, NASA says it will try to keep tracking the asteroid’s trajectory to get the best read on its movement. So while it’s trying hard to get out of our solar system, hopefully, we’ll always keep a little piece of ‘Oumuamua with us.
Have you ever wondered what an asteroid would look like if it hit the ocean? Check out this video to find out.