NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations (NEOO) Program has one job to do: find and track asteroids and comets in Earth’s neighborhood. But its recent detection was literally out of this world, and the first of its kind: an interstellar traveler, which has now been named ‘Oumuamua.
Our scopes and radars have yet to pick up on an object from outside of our solar system, until now. But on October 19, 2017, 1I/2017 U1 ‘Oumuamua became the first one – even though our ‘scopes didn’t pick up on it for a long time to come. Can you guess by the name where it was discovered? If it sounds Hawaiian – that’s because it is! It was discovered by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS1 telescope. The name ‘Oumuamua (pronounced oh MOO-uh MOO-uh) is Hawaiian for “a messenger from afar arriving first.”
We were lucky to pick up on this giant rock when we did – just as it was on its way out of our solar system. Over the course of two years, it passed by the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Earth. And now, it’s finally continuing its journey past us to its next destination, our next-door neighbor constellation Pegasus.
While studying its cometary or asteroidal potential, observers detected no signs of cometary activity until it slingshotted past the Sun going 196,000 miles per hour (87.3 kilometers per second). Though it was briefly classified as an asteroid, its speed seemed to be accelerating as it moved, which more closely fits the properties of a comet.
The popular response to this object has been to liken its shape to familiar everyday objects, such as a cigar, or a stick, or even a piece of floating cosmic excrement. But one thing’s for sure: its shape isn’t familiar to our solar system. Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has called it “a strange visitor from a faraway star system, shaped like nothing we’ve ever seen in our own solar system neighborhood.”