On October 19, astronomers discovered something they had never seen before: a piece of rock flying through our solar system from somewhere outside it.
The less than a quarter-mile-wide object dubbed with the catchy(?) moniker “A/2017 U1,” is already heading away from Earth at a staggering 27 miles a second. Unfortunately, this interstellar visitor was discovered five days after the point where it was nearest to Earth, and astronomers think that by November 2 or 3, it will have disappeared from their view completely. This is much too small of a window to learn much, but it does confirm something that scientists have suspected for some time: from time to time, objects travel to our solar system from other stars.
Even traveling at 27 miles a second, this space object (astronomers still aren’t sure what it’s made of yet) would take more than 29,000 years just to get to Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to Earth — and that’s if it was pointed in the right direction. As of October 29 when this blog was posted, astronomers haven’t agreed on where the object came from or where it’s headed.
NASA’s Davide Farnocchia called A/2017 U1’s orbit “the most extreme orbit I have ever seen.” He added that “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 Johns Hopkins University’s Andy Rivkin put it (via National Geographic):
“This is a visitor from another star system, and we are here in a time and place to see it…Who knows where it’s been before this? Who knows where it’s going to go after this? Space is big, and we were here to see it.”
Main image credit: NASA
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