Researchers may have found an interstellar comet in our solar system

Whatever it is, it doesn't look like it's from around here.

Researchers think they've just spotted the first known comet or asteroid that may have come from outside our solar system.Whatever it is, it doesn't look like it's from around here.

Astronomer Rob Weryk first spotted the object, called A/2017 U1 on October 19 while using the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii, according to NASA.

After Weryk submitted his finding, he also found other, previous observations of the object that hadn't been picked out of the data from the day before.

"Its motion could not be explained using either a normal solar system asteroid or comet orbit," Weryk said in a statement.

"This object came from outside our solar system."

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If confirmed, this interstellar visitor would be a pretty big deal.

While we can use huge telescopes on Earth and in space to spy on other stars and even galaxies, actually seeing an interstellar object from close range in our own solar system could help us understand even more about how our galaxy functions.

"We have been waiting for this day for decades," NASA's Paul Chodas said in the statement.

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This graphic illustrates how Cassini scientists think water interacts with rock at the bottom of the ocean of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus, producing hydrogen gas.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

These composite images show a suspected plume of material erupting two years apart from the same location on Jupiter's icy moon Europa. Both plumes, photographed in UV light by Hubble, were seen in silhouette as the moon passed in front of Jupiter.

Credits: NASA/ESA/STScI/USGS

The green oval highlights the plumes Hubble observed on Europa. The area also corresponds to a warm region on Europa's surface. The map is based on observations by the Galileo spacecraft.

Credits: NASA/ESA/STScI/USGS

This illustration shows Cassini diving through the Enceladus plume in 2015. New ocean world discoveries from Cassini and Hubble will help inform future exploration and the broader search for life beyond Earth.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Cassini spacecraft spied this tight trio of craters as it approached Saturn's icy moon Enceladus for a close flyby in this image captured Oct. 14, 2015. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
Saturn's ocean-bearing moon Enceladus taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Nov. 27, 2016. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
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"It's long been theorized that such objects exist — asteroids or comets moving around between the stars and occasionally passing through our solar system — but this is the first such detection. So far, everything indicates this is likely an interstellar object, but more data would help to confirm it."

It looks as if the object flew into the solar system from above, diving down toward the sun, almost running perpendicular to the plane where the planets move in their orbits.

According to NASA, the small body passed between Mercury and the sun on September 2, making its close approach to the sun about one week later. At that point, it was turned by the sun's gravity and is now flying at 27 miles per second, NASA said, toward Pegasus.

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Star trails

Photographs can show us things that unaided human eyes cannot see. Mount a camera on a tripod, point it at the heavens, and open the shutter, and you can capture an image of curving streaks of starlight that reveal information about our planet and its position in the solar system. I have made such time exposures of space from Earth, so when I had the chance, I figured it was only fitting to make time exposures of Earth from space.

Don Pettit/NASA

Infrared

Human eyes can only see a limited slice of the full electromagnetic spectrum. Just beyond what we see as deep red at one end of our “visible spectrum” is infrared radiation, wavelengths that are rich with information about our environment, but escape our detection.... In this infrared photograph, lush green plant life appears as bright orange-red. Rocky crags and other barren geologic structures appear as dark green to blue-grey. Turbulent oceanic currents become visible as whitish veils, and coral reefs glow a tie-dyed yellow-green.

Don Pettit/NASA

The Bosphorus Strait, Turkey

From above, lights accentuate the places where people want to live, and darkness marks places where we prefer not to be. Dark and light tell a story—the story not only of where we are now, but also of where we have been. What was once a meandering cattle trail is now a super highway illuminated with sodium vapor lights. An urban core shaped by a modern master plan appears as a matrix laid out in a perfect grid. Older cities have more organic, even chaotic shapes. Oil fields appear as a pattern of mottled white spots; and fishing vessels surrounded by dark ocean look like star clusters in the night sky, creating new constellations for the zodiac.

Don Pettit/NASA

Sunshine on the International Space Station

Daytime views from space are joyful, offering a wonderful display of saturated color.

Don Pettit/NASA

Betisboka River delta in Madagascar

We are accustomed to seeing intensely colored photographs from space, scenes that present themselves as saturated treats for the eyes. Such brilliant images are central to any orbital photo essay. But if you strip away the colors, leaving only tones of black and white, the eyes discover new pleasures. Deprived of color, the mind searches for other details where new perspectives come into focus.

Don Pettit/NASA

Blue marble

From space I have been able to capture wide-angle oblique views of natural structures on Earth that stretch across half a continent, and telephoto views that showcase fine details. Light is the heart of these photographs. Low-angle sunlight casts long shadows, and gives depth. Noontime sun creates sun glint, intense lighting that causes surface water to act like a mirror directly reflecting the sun’s rays into the lens. Sun glint reveals ocean surface patterns that are invisible under any other lighting condition.

Don Pettit/NASA

Aurora

Auroras are diaphanous incandescent displays. Intense greens, reds, and blues move across your field of view like phosphorescent amoebas. The greens swirl below our orbit, and the reds flow by at our same altitude.

Don Pettit/NASA

Space station over aurorae

We fly through an aurora, and for a moment it is as if we have suddenly been miniaturized, and inserted into a neon sign.

Don Pettit/NASA

Solar panels in front of the terminator

Near the terminator, the line that separates day and night, noctilucent clouds gleam with the iridescence of an abalone shell.

Don Pettit/NASA

Self-portrait of Don Pettit in the space station cupola

Don Pettit/NASA

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While it certainly looks as if the small object comes from outside of the solar system, it's still possible that A/2017 U1 has a more common origin.

According to astrophysicist Maria Womack, who spoke with New Scientist, the object "could have interacted with Jupiter or another planet in such a way that changed its orbit."

Researchers are still hoping for more observations of A/2017 U1 to nail down exactly where this comet or asteroid is coming from.

But at least for right now, it's looking a lot like this comet or asteroid isn't from around here.

The Minor Planet Center (MPC) — which serves as a clearinghouse for cataloguing small bodies in the solar system — appears to be somewhat confident that A/2017 U1 is interstellar in origin.

"If further observations confirm the unusual nature of this orbit, this object may be the first clear case of an interstellar comet," the MPC said in a statement on its observing page for the object.

If it is of interstellar origin, it could present an interesting problem for the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the organization tasked with officially naming planets, stars, comets, asteroids, and other objects in the universe.

Because we've never seen an interstellar comet or asteroid before, the IAU will need to develop some way to name it and establish new conventions for naming any other objects like A/2017 U1 that we might see in the future.

"This is the most extreme orbit I have ever seen," NASA scientist Davide Farnocchia said in the statement.

"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."

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