Observations of the oblong interstellar traveler Oumuamua have revealed an unidentified organic coating on it, igniting scientific and public curiosity alike.
After “Oumuamua” was initially spotted by a telescope in Hawaii by the Pan-STARRS project on October 19, experts raced to gather all possible information on it before it passed beyond humanity’s collective reach. But, while they expected to find a comet-like chunk of ice passing by our sun, the object mysteriously failed to leave behind a vapor trail as it grazed our home star. Instead, the still-unidentified chunk of ancient space debris hurtling at 60,000 MPH through our solar system left us with a host of new questions.
First, Oumuamua is exceptionally long and narrow — roughly 400 by about 40 meters. The shape is unlike any asteroids in our own solar system. Paul Chodas, Manager of NASA’s Centre for Near Earth Orbit Studies, called it “a strange visitor from a faraway star system, shaped like nothing we’ve ever seen in our own solar system neighborhood.”
Second, the lack of a comet-like tail of vaporized ice — despite passing even within Mercury’s orbit — seems to be the result of unknown organic matter which shields its internal ice from the sun’s immense heat. Also, it’s red. And while some observations tagged it as similar to the shades we see from minerals present in our own system, others suggest that it is significantly darker.
Queen’s University Belfast’s Dr. Michele Bannister of the Outer Solar System Origins Survey called Oumuamua “the opposite” of what she was “expecting we might see.” To her, it is the familiar aspects of the object that intrigue. “It’s travelled for millions or billions of years – it could be older than our solar system. …It’s come from a very long way away, but it looks very familiar,” she said.
Her colleague, Professor Alan Fitzsimmons, hopes for more time with the next exotic wanderer, bemoaning the short period of time between its discovery and departure:
What would be great would be to find another one of these objects where we can say, ‘yes, this object came from this particular star or particular region.’ At the moment the only limit we’ve got is an upper limit of about 10 billion years – because when our universe started, the materials weren’t around to form a solid body like this.
Of course, some are even convinced that Oumuamua could provide proof of extra-terrestrial life. Professor Fitzsimmons remains skeptical.”We expect these things out there,” he said. “And looking at this object, the first object that’s been detected, it has appearances of these natural objects that we’d expect from another star – this looks exactly what we’d expect.”
Whatever Oumuamua ultimately is, the data collected from its passing will be a hot topic among researchers for years to come — or, at least, until the next one.
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