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Is the Interstellar Asteroid Really a Comet?

27 June 2018


Dr. Karen Meech
UH Institute for Astronomy
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Dr. Marco Micheli
ESA SSA-NEO Coordination Centre and INAF Observatory of Rome, Italy
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Dr. Roy Gal
Media Contact
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Mary Beth Laychak
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Artist's impression of insterstellar object Oumuamua
ʻOumuamua (artist's impression)

This artist's impression shows the first interstellar object discovered in the Solar System, ʻOumuamua. Observations made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, CFHT, and others, show that the object is moving faster than predicted while leaving the Solar System.

Researchers assume that venting material from its surface due to solar heating is responsible for this behavior. This outgassing can be seen in this artist's impression as a subtle cloud being ejected from the side of the object facing the Sun.

Because outgassing is a behavior typical for comets, the team thinks that ʻOumuamua's previous classification as an interstellar asteroid has to be correctedshould be changed to a comet.

Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser
High Res JPG / High Res TIFF

The interstellar object ʻOumuamua was discovered back on October 19, 2017, but the puzzle of its true nature has taken months to unravel, and may never be fully solved.

Meaning 'scout from the distant past' in Hawaiian, ʻOumuamua was found by astronomers working with the University of Hawaiʻi's Pan-STARRS1 survey as it came close to Earth's orbit. But what is it - an asteroid, or a comet? As soon as it was spotted, astronomers from around the world were on the case.

The first clue: its trajectory. Extensive follow-up observations by the Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope (CFHT), the European Space Agency's (ESA) Optical Ground Station telescope in Tenerife, Canary Islands, and other telescopes around the world have helped pin it down.

ʻOumuamua was first spotted about a month after its closest approach to the Sun, which took it within the orbit of Mercury. Unlike any asteroid or comet observed before, this new object sped past the Sun, approaching from 'above' the plane of the planets on a highly inclined orbit, moving fast enough (70,800 miles per hour as of July 1, 2018) to escape the Sun's gravitational pull and eventually depart our Solar System.

Initially, astronomers assumed ʻOumuamua was a comet. Current understanding of planet formation predicts more interstellar comets than interstellar asteroids. However, astronomers did not see evidence of gas emission or a dusty environment in the observations. Without these hallmarks of cometary activity, it was classified as the first interstellar asteroid.

But the story has another surprising twist.

Following the initial discovery observations with Pan-STARRS, a team of astronomers led by Marco Micheli of ESA's SSA-NEO Coordination Centre, and Karen Meech of the University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy, continued to make high precision measurements of the object and its position using many ground-based facilities like CFHT, as well as the Hubble Space Telescope. The final images were taken with Hubble in January, before the object became too faint to observe as it sped away on its outbound orbit.

Contrary to their expectations, the team found that the object was not following the anticipated trajectory if only the gravity of the Sun and the planets were determining its path. "Unexpectedly, we found that ʻOumuamua was not slowing down as much as it should have due to just gravitational forces", says Marco, lead author of the paper reporting the team's findings, published today in the journal Nature. What could be causing this curious behavior?

Rigorous analysis ruled out a range of possible influences, such as radiation pressure or thermal effects from the Sun, or interaction with the Sun's solar wind. Other, less likely scenarios, such as a collision with another body, or ʻOumuamua being two separate, loosely held-together objects, were also discarded.

Comets contain ices that sublimate, or turn directly from a solid to a gas, when warmed by the Sun. This process drags out dust from the comet's surface to create a fuzzy 'atmosphere' and sometimes a tail. The release of gas pressure at different locations and times can have the effect of pushing the comet slightly off-course compared with the expected path if only gravitational forces were at play.

"Thanks to the high quality of the observations we were able to characterize the direction and magnitude of the non-gravitational perturbation, which behaves the same way as comet outgassing," says Davide Farnocchia of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The team has not detected any dusty material or chemical signatures that would typically characterize a comet, even in the deepest images from ESO's Very Large Telescope, Hubble, and the Gemini South telescope. "ʻOumuamua is small - no more than a half a mile long - and it could have been releasing a small amount of relatively large dust for it to have escaped detection," said Meech. "To really understand ʻOumuamua we would need to send a space probe to it. This is actually possible, but it would be very expensive and take a long time to get there, so it isn't practical this time. We just have to be ready for the next one."

"It was extremely surprising that ʻOumuamua first appeared as an asteroid, given that we expect interstellar comets should be far more abundant, so we have at least solved that particular puzzle," says Olivier Hainaut of the European Southern Observatory. "It is still a tiny and weird object that is not behaving like a typical comet, but our results certainly lean towards it being a comet and not an asteroid after all."

Because of its small size and faintness, current observations of ʻOumuamua do not provide all the information astronomers need to determine important aspects of the comet's surface. "When ʻOumuamua was discovered, the astronomy community gathered as much data as possible, but ultimately, the object was just not visible long enough to answer all our questions," says Ken Chambers from Pan-STARRS. "With Pan-STARRS monitoring the skies, we hope to discover more ʻOumuamua-like objects in the future and begin to answer the really interesting questions about this class of objects."

Animation of ʻOumuamua outgassing and rotating

This animation, based on an artist's impression, shows the first interstellar object ʻOumuamua. Observations from CFHT, Hubble, and other telescopes show ʻOumuamua moving faster than expected. Researchers assume that venting material from its surface due to solar heating is responsible for the observed speed. The animation also shows the tumbling motion of the object.

This video is available in a variety of formats here.

Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser

Oumuamua trajectory in Solar System

ʻOumuamua's trajectory in our Solar System

Left: Artist's impression of ʻOumuamua, depicted with outgassing typical of a comet.

Center: The highly inclined trajectory of ʻOumuamua through our Solar System.

Right: Comparison of the observed trajectory (blue) with what would be expected assuming the object was only influenced by the gravity of the Sun and planets (green) in our Solar System. The difference in the two trajectories amounted to about 100,000 km on May 3, 2018, when ʻOumuamua reached the distance of Jupiter from the Sun. This distance is equivalent to about one-quarter of the separation between Earth and the Moon. ʻOumuamua will reach the distance of Saturn in January 2019, by which point the separation between the trajectories will be about 550,000 km.

As inferred by the longer line representing the observed trajectory, the object was not slowing down as fast as expected assuming only gravitational forces were at work. This can be explained if the object is considered as a comet, with its gassy emissions causing small deviations to the trajectory.

Credit: ESA

Additional Information & Companion Press Releases

The research team's work is presented in the scientific paper "Non-gravitational acceleration in the trajectory of 1I/2017 U1 (ʻOumuamua)", which is published in the journal Nature on 27 June 2018.

Hubble Space Telescope Press Release

European Space Agency (ESA) Press Release

European Southern Observatory (ESO) Press Release

Canada France Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) Press Release

Dr. Karen Meech's TED talk on ʻOumuamua

"Behind the Paper" Nature blog post

The international team of astronomers in this study consists of Marco Micheli (European Space Agency & INAF, Italy), Davide Farnocchia (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA), Karen J. Meech (University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, USA), Marc W. Buie (Southwest Research Institute, USA), Olivier R. Hainaut (European Southern Observatory, Germany), Dina Prialnik (Tel Aviv University School of Geosciences, Israel), Harold A. Weaver (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, USA), Paul W. Chodas (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA), Jan T. Kleyna (University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, USA), Robert Weryk (University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, USA), Richard J. Wainscoat (University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, USA), Harald Ebeling (University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, USA), Jacqueline V. Keane (University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, USA), Kenneth C. Chambers (University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, USA), Detlef Koschny (European Space Agency, European Space Research and Technology Centre, & Technical University of Munich, Germany), and Anastassios E. Petropoulos (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA).

Founded in 1967, the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa conducts research into galaxies, cosmology, stars, planets, and the sun. Its faculty and staff are also involved in astronomy education, deep space missions, and in the development and management of the observatories on Haleakalā and Maunakea. The Institute operates facilities on the islands of Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii.