'Oumuamua isn't an alien spaceship - so what is it?

19 December, 2017, 10:50 | Author: Archie Newman
  • 'Oumuamua isn't an alien spaceship - so what is it?

The first object to visit our solar system from interstellar space is now making a clean getaway from our cosmic neighbourhood. It was therefore logical for astronomers to expect that the first interstellar visitor they would see should be a comet. But unlike a comet, it didn't leave a trail of gas and dust from an icy coating.

According to professor Alan Fitzsimmons from the Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland, there is much more "icy stuff than rocky stuff" in the solar system, making it more likely for emissaries from other systems to also be icy, if other solar systems evolved in the same way.

She said: 'The nice thing about driftwood is that it tells you that there's trees that grow on distant shores, so this is a little tangible piece of evidence that the way planets formed and grew in our own solar system, it's happening the same way in other solar systems far away'.

But astronomers observing 'Oumuamua with their telescopes have seen no signs of such a behavior. If this is the case, the asteroid's outer shell would have prevented these frozen gases from heating up, even when the asteroid got within 24 million miles of the sun. Most asteroids are found orbiting in the Asteroid Belt, a series of rings located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. There are now over 600,000 known asteroids in our solar system. "I imagine the carbon-rich layer would be inhospitable to life due to the large radiation dose it has received", Alan Fitzsimmons, an astrophysicist at Queen's University Belfast in the United Kingdom and lead author of the paper published (paywall) in Nature today (Dec. 18), told Quartz via email. That kind of got our head scratching.

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'We don't know that the interior does contain ice but if it did contain ice it would have been insulated by the layer on the surface'. "Something with the strength of talcum powder would hold itself together at that speed", Fitzsimmons explained. "And that's what we saw in our spectra".

"Looking at it we realised it had been predicted that icier objects exposed to interstellar space should naturally form a thick crust around themselves".

In a separate paper that will be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters later this month, Fitzsimmons" colleague Michele Bannister, also from Queen's University, looked at further properties of "Oumuamua in the near-infrared spectrum and compared the data with those on similar objects in the outer solar system. Thermal simulations of the carbon-rich layer suggest that if this schmutz were about 40 centimetres thick on 'Oumuamua, it could insulate an ice-rich interior from the heat of stars such as our sun. She found staggering similarities. "It has a greyish/red surface and is highly elongated, probably about the size and shape of the Gherkin skyscraper in London". It was spotted in October by researchers on the Pan-Starrs telescope in Hawaii after it barrelled past the sun on its way through.

The studies show that 'Oumuamua more effectively reflects reddish light than bluish light-a roundabout outcome of high-energy particles flung off as shrapnel from cosmic cataclysms such as supernovae.


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