A Queen’s University Belfast scientist is currently leading an international team in studying a new visitor to our solar system—the first known comet or asteroid to visit us from another star. Stranger in a strange land in my opinion. The fast-moving object, now named A/2017 U1 for some reason, was initially spotted on the 19th of October in Hawaii. Professor Alan Fitzsimmons from the School of Mathematics and Physics at Queen’s together with colleagues in Great Britain, the United States and Chile—has been tracking this comet using high-tech and powerful telescopes across the world.
Commenting on the project, the Professor said: “By Wednesday this week, it became almost certain that this object was a stranger to our solar system. We immediately began studying it that night when we discovered it with the William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands; then, on Thursday night with the Very Large Telescope in Chile.”
The initial data implies it as a small, rocky or icy object that may have been drifting through our galaxy for millions or even billions of years, before entering our solar system by sudden chance. The object flew into the solar system from above. It closed in to the sun last month and is now already on its way back to the stars.
Astronomers believe it was probably thrown out of another star system during a period of planet formation. The same process is initially thought to have unfolded 4.5 Billion years ago around our own stars, when the famous planets Saturn and Jupiter formed. What’s fascinating is that scientists have never seen such an interstellar visitor until now.
During prompt investigations, the Professor’s team has now successfully captured clear images of this visitor and obtained data on its possible chemical makeup.
Meabh Hyland, a Ph.D. student from the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen’s University in Belfast stated: “It’s wonderful to see this object passing through our planetary system!”
Commenting on the incredible discovery, Professor Fitzsimmons added to his statement: “It sends a shiver down the spine to look at this object and think that it has come from another star.”
However, more statistics is needed to pin down the exact details as of where the visitor originated from and what its properties are, but luckily the traveler should be more visible through powerful telescopes for a few more weeks, allowing scientists to continue their investigations.