Q: Recently there have been reports of an asteroid from outside our solar system flying through our solar system. I truly am wondering whether this, like crop circles and Bigfoot, might simply be an end-of-the-year practical joke by astronomers in the spirit of science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s famous novel “Rendezvous with Rama.”
C.S., of Belleville
A: Considering that some people still believe the Earth is flat and man never landed on the moon, I fear mere words by your humble Answer Man likely won’t convince die-hard skeptics that this first-of-its-kind celestial object is indeed real.
I mean, even the Catholic church refused to officially accept that the Earth revolved around the sun until Sept. 11, 1822, three centuries after Copernicus first proposed the idea and 200 years after Galileo wound up on trial for, in essence, calling his former friend Pope Urban VIII a dummy for not endorsing the theory. And, of course, some still believe the universe was created in a literal week and the Earth is just 6,000 years old.
So, in one sense, I guess I cannot blame you for questioning something you’ve never seen with your own eyes. I remember how vexed I became a few years ago when an acquaintance tried to persuade me that a rogue planet was speeding through the solar system on a collision course (or near-miss) with Earth.
Called Nibiru or Planet X, it was the cockamamie fantasy of one Nancy Lieder, who said she had been chosen by aliens in the Zeta Reticuli star system to warn her fellow earthlings of an impending catastrophe in May 2003. When I pointed out that no reputable scientist had ever detected such a planet, my conspiracy theorist countered that a.) the planet was invisible or b.) world governments were covering up the facts to prevent panic. As we’re all around to attest to, nothing happened in 2003 or a rescheduled date in 2012.
But if you still remember Nibiru, I can understand why you might have your doubts about this new strange object with an equally strange name — Oumuamua. All I can do is stress that the following information comes from an official NASA press release, and I’ve never known the country’s space agency to deceive space geeks like me with deliberate tall tales (especially if not on some fitting occasion like April Fools Day.)
In this case, a team of astronomers using the Pan-Starrs1 telescope at the University of Hawaii announced that on Oct. 19 it had discovered perhaps the oddest object it had ever detected making its way through our solar system. From its unusual motion, the scientists concluded it had arrived from a solar system outside our own.
“This is the most extreme orbit I have ever seen,” Davide Farnocchia, a scientist with the NASA Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) was quoted as saying in the release. “It is going extremely fast and on such a trajectory that we can say with confidence that this object is on its way out of the solar system and not coming back.”
As a result, the object has been classified as an asteroid rather than a recurring comet as first thought. Because of its unique origin, it became the first to receive a new series designation from the International Astronomical Union, which assigns such designations to astronomical objects. Officially, the object has been designated as “1I/2017 U1” with the “I” standing for “interstellar.” Unofficially, it was dubbed “Oumuamua,” a Hawaiian word for “messenger from afar arriving first.”
In its most recent observations, the celestial vagabond has the appearance of a rocky cigar, about a quarter-mile wide and perhaps two to three miles long. The researchers think the asteroid is unattached to any star system and has spent hundreds of millions of years sailing through the Milky Way before finding its way into our solar system for a brief visit.
“For decades, we’ve theorized that such interstellar objects are out there, and now — for the first time — we have direct evidence they exist,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate associate administrator. “This history-making is opening a new window to study formation of solar systems beyond our own.
The asteroid’s characteristics suggest it is made up of waterless rocks or metals that have taken on a slightly reddish hue from being bombarded by cosmic rays over the eons. According to NASA Institute for Astronomy astronomer Karen Meech, the object varies in brightness by a factor of 10 as it spins on its axis every 7.3 hours. No other known comet or asteroid has ever been found to have such a wide variety of brightness or such a huge ratio between length and width.
According to the scientists’ calculations, it is speeding away at 85,700 miles per hour, which, at the moment, puts it about 200 million miles from Earth. It is expected to pass Jupiter’s orbit next May and travel beyond Saturn in January 2019. Scientists were expected to lose their ability to monitor Oumuamua with their telescopes about two weeks ago.
“We are fortunate that our sky survey telescope was looking in the right place at the right time to capture this historic moment,” Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson said in the NASA release. “This serendipitous discovery is bonus science enabled by NASA’s efforts to find, track and characterize near-Earth objects that could potentially pose a threat to our planet.”
Why did a lot of people jump in the air at 9:47 a.m. April 1, 1976?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: For whatever reason, Spotify, a music streaming service, decided to measure which Christmas song each state listened to most compared to the rest of the country to determine that state’s “official” Christmas anthem. Six states wound up with Nat King Cole’s classic “The Christmas Song.” Utah has David Archuleta’s “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Illinois? “Elf’s Lament” by Barenaked Ladies.