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Hubble gets snapshot of interstellar comet

Pictures captured by the Hubble Space Telescope show the second known interstellar object, 2I/Borisov, in all its cometary glory.

The images were taken by the telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 on Oct. 12, when 2I/Borisov was 260 million miles from Earth. The object was discovered by Crimean amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov in August, and since then its path has been traced to far beyond our solar system.

2I/Borisov is currently zooming through our celestial neighborhood at a speed of 110,000 mph. The comet won’t come any closer than 190 million miles to us, with the closest approach expected on Dec. 7 — and it’s on a course to leave our solar system for good.

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‘Oumuamua points to plethora of interstellar objects

'Oumuamua
An artist’s conception shows what the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua might look like. (ESO Illustration / M. Kornmesser)

The cigar-shaped object known as ‘Oumuamua may be the first interstellar interloper to be discovered, but it’s not likely to be the last. Statistics suggest that there are lots more space rocks like it out there.

How many? About 100 septillion in our Milky Way galaxy, according to Yale astronomer Gregory Laughlin, who has analyzed the light curve and weird orbit of ‘Oumuamua — a Hawaiian word that basically means “first messenger from afar.”

That number is a 1 followed by 26 zeroes.

Laughlin arrived at that estimate by extrapolating from the observational capabilities of the Pan-STARRS Telescope in Hawaii, the instrument that first detected the object back in October 2017.

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Was interstellar object an alien sail? Not so fast

'Oumuamua
An artist’s conception shows what the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua might look like. (ESO Illustration / M. Kornmesser)

‘Oumuamua is long gone from the inner solar system, but the mystery surrounding the interstellar interloper has been rekindled, thanks to a research paper written by two Harvard astronomers.

The paper, suggesting that the cigar-shaped object could have been an alien light sail, sparked headlines as well as skepticism from colleagues claiming that the astronomers were jumping to conclusions.

Among the skeptics is Doug Vakoch, who heads up METI, a San Francisco-based organization devoted to the study of alien contact. (The acronym stands for “Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”)

“I’d love to think that ‘Oumuamua is an extraterrestrial spacecraft that whipped past Earth, propelled by a stream of photons hitting its solar sail. But we need to be wary of conjuring up an explanation that fits the data gathered at one point in time, when we have no opportunity for follow-up observations,” Vakoch told me in an email.

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Hubble hints that interstellar object is a comet

Observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based observatories indicate that the cigar-shaped interstellar object known as ‘Oumuamua got an unexpected boost in speed and a shift in its trajectory as it passed through the inner solar system last year. Scientists surmise that the source of the boost was an outflow of gas and dust from ‘Oumuamua, which suggests that the object is more like an active comet than a passive asteroid.

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SETI scientists hear nothing from interstellar object

Green Bank Telescope
The Breakthrough Listen initiative uses the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. (NRAO Photo)

The scientists behind the Breakthrough Listen initiative say they haven’t detected any radio signals coming from a strange interstellar object known as ‘Oumuamua, but there are still more observations to be made and analyzed.

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Is weird object a starship? Scientists will check

'Oumuamua
An artist’s conception shows what the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua might look like. (ESO Illustration / M. Kornmesser)

Is that cigar-shaped, fast-moving interstellar object a spaceship? Almost certainly not, but Breakthrough Listen will check just to make sure.

The Breakthrough Listen campaign, which checks celestial targets for radio signals from intelligent civilizations, will turn the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia toward the object, known as ‘Oumuamua, starting Dec. 13.

Scientists will check for emissions across four radio bands from 1 to 12 GHz. The first phase of observations will take up 10 hours, divided into four key time periods based on ‘Oumuamua’s period of rotation.

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It’s confirmed: Interstellar asteroid is an oddball

'Oumuamua
An artist’s conception shows what the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua might look like. (ESO Illustration / M. Kornmesser)

Scientists say the interstellar asteroid known as ‘Oumuamua is like nothing that’s been seen in the solar system before, with an “extreme oblong shape” that’s as much as 10 times as long as it is wide. The details are laid out in a paper published today by the journal Nature.

Nature’s authors say ‘Oumuamua is relatively dense, possibly with high metal content, lacks significant amounts of water or ice, and shows no signs of dust. They estimate its length to be at least 1,300 feet (400 meters), which is longer than previous estimates.

The size estimate is based on how the light reflected by the object varied over the course of a roughly 7.3-hour rotation period. No direct observations of ‘Oumuamua’s shape could be made, but one can only imagine what conspiracy theorists might come up with.

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