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Have astronomers just seen another interstellar object?

Photo: Ryan F. Mandelbaum

An amateur astronomer may have discovered an object outside our solar system, according to a message from the Minor Planet Center.

Astronomers saw the first known interstellar object, called & # 39; Oumuamua, 2017. Its hyperbolic orbit indicated that it had come a long way from and would not return. Lots of speculation followed what the object might be, speculation that of course included foreigners. The newly discovered object would be the second such interstellar visitor – but there are many more sightings to come.

An amateur astronomer named Gennady Borisov first discovered the object on August 30 with a telescope he built himself. Other observations (and hype) have been followed. Today, the Little Planet Center at the Center for Astrophysics released an official circular on the object, now temporarily called C / 2019 Q4 (Borisov). If researchers confirm its interstellar nature, it will receive a new name beginning with 2I, designating it as the second interstellar object.

With more observations of the object, researchers have begun to calculate the shape of its trajectory. These calculations seem to reveal that the orbit has a hyperbolic shape – rather than the elliptical shape that characterizes the orbits in things orbiting the sun. The path suggests that the object will eventually leave the solar system and never return.

Astronomer Michele Bannister at the Astrophysics Research Center at Queen's University tweeted that other objects had first appeared to have hyperbolic orbits, only to be resolved to more typical trajectories when further observations came in.

"Further observations are clearly very desirable," reads the MPC circular.

Matthew Holman, MPC's director, told Gizmodo that the object is near the sun in the sky when viewed from Earth, making it challenging to observe, and astronomers must be careful about potential effects that the atmosphere can have on all observations.

Interstellar objects are intriguing, as they probably have information about how things look elsewhere in the galaxy. The first interstellar visitor. 'Oumuamua. aroused lots of excitement; for some, its strange, cigar-like form seemed almost impossible. This new object will surely give its own hype and speculation (and certainly more talk about foreigners). But it's especially exciting because astronomers will be able to make comparisons between it and & # 39; Oumuamua. The first observations already reveal that the object is an active comet with a large temporary atmosphere, or coma, says Holman.

"In the absence of an unexpected bleaching or disintegration, this object should be observable for at least one year," according to the circular. We look forward to learning more about this potential visitor in the coming months.

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