Update: At original time of writing, C/2017 U1 was assumed to be a comet. But Followup observations by the Very Large Telescope in Chile on Oct. 25 found no trace of cometary activity. The object’s name has now been officially changed to A/2017 U1 as it is more likely an interstellar asteroid, not a comet.
Comets and asteroids usually originate from the outermost reaches of the solar system — they’re the ancient rocky, icy debris left over from the formation of the planets 4.6 billion years ago.
However, astronomers have long speculated that comets and asteroids originating from other stars might escape their stars, traverse interstellar distances and occasionally pay our solar system a visit. And looking at C/2017 U1’s extreme hyperbolic trajectory, it looks very likely it’s not from around these parts.
“If further observations confirm the unusual nature of this orbit this object may be the first clear case of an interstellar comet,” said Gareth Williams, associate director of the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center (MPC). A preliminary study of C/2017 U1 was published earlier today. (Since this statement, followup observations have indicated that the object might be an asteroid and not a comet.)
According to Sky & Telescope, the object entered the solar system at the extreme speed of 16 miles (26 kilometers) per second, meaning that it is capable of traveling a distance of 850 light-years over 10 million years, a comparatively short period in cosmic timescales.
Spotted on Oct. 18 as a very dim 20th magnitude object, astronomers calculated its trajectory and realized that it was departing the solar system after surviving a close encounter with the sun on Sept. 9, coming within 23.4 million miles (0.25 AU). Comets would vaporize at that distance from the sun, but as C/2017 U1’s speed is so extreme, it didn’t have time to heat up.
“It went past the sun really fast and may not have had time to heat up enough to break apart,” said dynamicist Bill Gray. Gray estimates that the comet is approximately 160 meters wide with a surface reflectivity of 10 percent.
But probably the coolest factor about this discovery is the possible origin of C/2017 U1. After calculating the direction at which the comet entered the solar system, it appears to have come from the constellation of Lyra and not so far from the star Vega. For science fiction fans this holds special meaning — that’s the star system where the SETI transmission originated in the Jodie Foster movie Contact.
Although comets are static lumps of ancient ice for most of their lives, their personalities can rapidly change with a little heat from the sun. Now, astronomers have witnessed just how dynamic comets can be, seeing one dramatically slow its rate of rotation to the point where it may even reverse its spin.
Comets are the leftover detritus of planetary formation that were sprinkled around our sun 4.6 billion years ago. These primordial icy remains collected in the outermost reaches of the solar system and that’s where they stay until they get knocked off their gravitational perches to begin an interplanetary roller coaster ride. Some are unlucky and end up diving straight to a fiery, solar death. But others set up in stable orbits, making regular passes through the inner solar system, dazzling observers with their beautiful tails formed through heating by the sun.
One mile-wide short-period comet is called 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak and it’s a slippery celestial object. First discovered in 1858 by U.S. astronomer Horace Parnell Tuttle, it disappeared soon after. But in 1907, French astronomer Michael Giacobini “rediscovered” the comet, only for it to disappear once again. Then, in 1951, Slovak astronomer Ľubor Kresák made the final “discovery” and now astronomers know exactly where to find it and when it will turn up in our night skies.
Its name, Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak, reflects the wonderful 100-year discovery and rediscovery history of astronomy’s quest to keep tabs on the comet’s whereabouts.
Now, 41P is the focus of an interesting cometary discovery. Taking 5.4 years to complete an orbit around the sun, 41P came within 13-million miles to Earth earlier this year, the closest it has come to our planet since it was first discovered by Tuttle. So, astronomers at Lowell Observatory, near Flagstaff, Ariz., used the 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope near Happy Jack, the 1.1-meter Hall telescope and the 0.9-meter Robotic telescope on Anderson Mesa, to zoom-in on the interplanetary vagabond to measure its rotational speed.
Comets can be unpredictable beasts. Composed of rock and icy volatiles, when they are slowly heated by the sun as they approach perihelion (the closest point in their orbit to the sun), these ices sublimate (i.e. turn from ice to vapor without melting into a liquid), blasting gas and dust into space.
Over time, these jets are known to have a gradual effect the comet’s trajectory and rotation, but, over an astonishing observation run, Lowell astronomers saw a dramatic change in this comet’s spin. Over a short six-week period, the comet’s rate of rotation slowed from one rotation every 24 hours to once every 48 hours — its rate of rotation had halved. This is the most dramatic change in comet rotation speed ever recorded — and erupting jets from the comet’s surface are what slammed on the brakes.
This was confirmed by observing cyanogen gas, a common molecule found on comets that is composed of one carbon atom and one nitrogen atom, being ejected into space as the comet was being heated by sunlight.
“While we expected to observe cyanogen jets and be able to determine the rotation period, we did not anticipate detecting a change in the rotation period in such a short time interval,” said Lowell astronomer David Schleicher, who led the project, in a statement. “It turned out to be the largest change in the rotational period ever measured, more than a factor of ten greater than found in any other comet.”
For this rapid slowdown to occur, the researchers think that 41P must have a very elongated shape and be of very low density. In this scenario, if the jets are located near the end of its length, enough torque could be applied to cause the slowdown. If this continues, the researchers predict that the direction of rotation may even reverse.
“If future observations can accurately measure the dimensions of the nucleus, then the observed rotation period change would set limits on the comet’s density and internal strength,” added collaborator Matthew Knight. “Such detailed knowledge of a comet is usually only obtained by a dedicated spacecraft mission like the recently completed Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.”
Sixty-six million years ago Earth underwent a cataclysmic change. Back then, our planet was dominated by dinosaurs, but a mass extinction event hastened the demise of these huge reptiles and paved the way for the mammalian takeover. Though there is some debate as to whether the extinction of the dinosaurs was triggered by an isolated disaster or a series of disasters, one event is clear — Earth was hit by a massive comet or asteroid and its impact had global ramifications.
The leading theory is that a massive comet slammed into our planet, creating the vast Chicxulub Crater buried under the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, enshrouding the atmosphere in fine debris, blotting out the sun for years.
Although there is strong evidence of comet impacts on Earth, these deep space vagabonds are notoriously hard to track, let alone predict when or how often they may appear. All we know is that they are out there, there are more than we thought, they are known to hit planets in the solar system and they can wreak damage of apocalyptic proportions.
Long-period comets are the most mysterious — and troubling — class of comet. They will often appear from nowhere, after falling from their distant gravitational perches, zoom through the inner solar system and disappear once more — often to be never seen again. Or they hit something on their way through. These icy bodies are the pristine left-overs of our solar system’s formation five billion years ago, hurled far beyond the orbits of the planets and into a region called the Oort Cloud.
In the Oort Cloud these ancient masses have remained in relative calm far from the gravitational instabilities close to the sun. But over the eons, countless close approaches by other stars in our galactic neighborhood have occurred, causing very slight gravitational nudges to the Oort Cloud. Astronomers believe that such stellar encounters are responsible for knocking comets from this region, sending them on a roller-coaster ride to the inner solar system.
The Gaia mission is a space telescope tasked with precisely mapping the distribution and motion of stars in our galaxy, so Bailer-Jones has investigated the rate of stellar encounters with our solar system. Using information in Gaia’s first data release (DR1), Bailer-Jones has published the first systematic estimate of stellar encounters — in other words, he’s estimated the flow of stellar traffic in the solar system’s neighborhood. And the traffic was found to be surprisingly heavy.
In his study, to be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, Bailer-Jones estimates that, on average, between 490 and 600 stars will come within 16.3 light-years (5 parsecs) of our sun and 19-24 of them will come within 3.26 light-years (1 parsec) every million years.
According to a press release, all of these stars will have some gravitational effect on the solar system’s Oort Cloud, though the closest encounters will have a greater influence.
This first Gaia data release is valid for five million years into the past and into the future, but astronomers hope the next data release (DR2) will be able to estimate stellar traffic up to 25 million years into the past and future. To begin studying the stellar traffic that may have been responsible for destabilizing the dinosaur-killing comet that hit Earth 66 million years ago will require a better understanding of the mass distribution of our galaxy (and how it influences the motion of stars) — a long-term goal of the Gaia project.
An Early Warning?
Spinning this idea into the future, could this project be used to act as an early warning system? Or could it be used to predict when and where a long-period comet may appear in the sky?
In short: “No,” Bailer-Jones told Astroengine via email. “Some close stellar encounters will for sure shake up the Oort cloud and fling comets into the inner solar system, but which comets on which orbits get flung in we cannot observe.”
He argues that the probability of comets being gravitationally nudged can be modeled statistically, but this would require a lot of assumptions to be made about the Oort Cloud, a region of space that we know very little about.
Also, the Oort Cloud is located well beyond the sun’s heliosphere and is thought to be between 50,000 and 200,000 AU (astronomical units, where 1 AU is the average distance between the sun and the Earth) away, so it would take a long time for comets to travel from this region, creating a long lag-time between stellar close approach and the comet making an appearance.
“Typically it takes a few million years for a comet to reach the inner solar system,” he added, also pointing out that other factors can complicate calculations, such as Jupiter’s enormous gravity that can deflect the passage of comets, or even fling them back out of the solar system again.
This is a fascinating study that goes to show that gravitational perturbations in the Oort Cloud are far from being rare events. A surprisingly strong flow of stellar traffic will constantly rattle otherwise inert comets, but how many are dislodged and sent on the long journey to the solar system’s core remains a matter for statistics and probability.
During the formation of the solar system, when the planets were molten messes and asteroid collisions (or “mudball” collisions, possibly) were commonplace, chunks of icy debris were flung away from the chaos surrounding our messy young star and relegated to a lifetime of solitude in the furthest-most reaches of the sun’s gravitational influence. This debris eventually settled and formed what is known as the Oort Cloud, a mysterious spherical shell of countless mountain-sized objects located nearly 200 billion miles away.
As the Oort Cloud is so distant, and there are no telescopes on Earth (or off-Earth) that can resolve these objects, we can only guess at how many icy lumps are out there lurking in the dark. But should a passing star cause a gravitational wobble in that region, a few of those ancient objects may be knocked off their delicate gravitational perches and they take the plunge back toward the sun, becoming what we humans call “long-period comets.” Only when we see these comets can we get a hint of the population of the Oort Cloud and the nature of long-period comets. But, as many of these deep space vagabonds have orbital periods of hundreds to millions of years, they are notoriously difficult to track.
A long period comet may appear in the sky tomorrow, but it may not return in Earth’s skies until the age of humanity is long gone and intelligent cockroaches roam the planet. It’s hard to keep track of comets with orbital periods longer than our lifespans, let alone the lifespan of our civilization.
So it may not come as a surprise that astronomers have woefully underestimated the number of long-period comets, according to a new study using observations from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, mission. But not only that, these things are a lot bigger than we thought.
The study, which has been published in The Astrophysical Journal, found that WISE had detected three to five times more long-period comets pass the sun over an eight-month period than expected and revealed that there are seven-times more long-period comets at least 1 kilometer across.
“The number of comets speaks to the amount of material left over from the solar system’s formation,” said lead author James Bauer, of the University of Maryland, College Park, in a NASA statement. “We now know that there are more relatively large chunks of ancient material coming from the Oort Cloud than we thought.”
WISE completed its primary mission in 2011, but has now embarked on a new mission to look out for dim asteroids and comets that stray close to Earth, called NEOWISE (NEO is for “Near-Earth objects”). During its primary mission, WISE was tasked to observe the universe in infrared wavelengths — revealing the otherwise hidden secrets of distant galaxies and the faint glow of mysterious objects traveling through the solar system. Among these objects were a surprising number of long-period comets, objects that WISE was uniquely qualified to characterize.
When comets approach the sun, their ices sublimate, dust is blasted into space and they form their trademark coma (a gaseous “atmosphere”) and tails around their nuclei. These factors obscure the main mass of the comet; astronomers cannot directly see the icy nucleus through the gas and dust — astronomers therefore have a hard time estimating the size of the comet.
But studying WISE’s precision infrared measurements of the comets’ comas, the researchers were able to deduce the actual nuclei sizes by subtracting observational data from theoretical models of the behavior of dust around a comet. In all, 56 long-period comets were studied and compared with observations of 95 “Jupiter family comets” — comets that have short orbital periods around the sun and are gravitationally influenced by Jupiter. This comparison between the two families of comets revealed that long-period comets aren’t only bigger than we expected, these monsters are up to twice the size of Jupiter family comets.
“Our results mean there’s an evolutionary difference between Jupiter family and long-period comets,” Bauer said.
The difference in comet sizes may not come as a surprise — Jupiter family comets have orbital periods less than 20 years and therefore spend much more time being heated by the sun. They lose mass through ice sublimation that, in turn, dislodges dust and other material, ultimately shedding mass. Long-period comets on the other hand are pristine having spend most of their lives in the deep space deep freeze, so they hold onto the material they were born with billions of years ago. Long-period comets are the epitome of primordial.
Naturally, no comet research would be complete without an Existential Reality Check™ and, as you may have guessed, this new research has a dark side.
“Comets travel much faster than asteroids, and some of them are very big,” said co-author Amy Mainzer, principal investigator of the NEOWISE mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Studies like this will help us define what kind of hazard long-period comets may pose.”
On Aug. 15, 1977 at 10:16 p.m. ET Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope detected a curious signal from deep space. Nearly 40 years later, we finally know what caused it and, sadly, it’s not aliens.
For decades, the signal has been the strongest piece of “go-to” evidence that intelligent extraterrestrials are out there in our galaxy. When found by astronomer Jerry Ehman on that fateful night, the 72-second signal — that had been recorded on a computer printout — certainly stood out.
While pointing at three star systems called Chi Sagittarii in the constellation of Sagittarius, Big Ear had picked up a powerful burst of radio waves. To the untrained eye, the assortment of printed digits might not mean much, but as I wrote in 2016, those letters and numbers could hold the answer to the biggest question we’re currently asking of the universe: Are we alone?
The Big Ear printout contains a bunch of apparently random numbers and letters, but Ehman’s red pen circles a cluster of digits “6EQUJ5” with other circles around a “6” and “7” on separate columns. This particular code first uses the numbers 1-9 and then the alphabet A-Z to denote signal strength. As the burst suggests, the signal strength hit “6” and then blasted through the letters reaching a peak of “U” before subsiding back into the numerical scale at “5.” There was then a slight wave trailing the main signal (hence the circled “6″ and “7″). The wave profile of the “Wow!” signal is graphically envisaged here. (Discovery News, April 18, 2016)
The maddening thing about the Wow! signal has always been a lack of replication. To science, one random signal in the dark proves nothing. It would be like trying to plot a trend line on a graph with one data point. More data is obviously needed and yet, since 1977, there’s been no other radio signal quite like it.
Curious, yes. Definite proof of chatty aliens? A solid nope.
So, when researching other possible causes of the Wow! signal that were also rare occurrences (but not aliens), Antonio Paris of St Petersburg College, Fla. (and an ex-analyst of the US Department of Defense), suggested that the signal might have been generated by one of two comets that serendipitously drifted into the line of sight of the Big Ear radio telescope.
In 1977, neither 266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs were known of (they were discovered in 2006 and 2008 respectively) and Paris calculated that both comets would have been in the right place in the sky when the Wow! signal was recorded.
What’s more, the Wow! signal has a frequency of 1420MHz — the same frequency that neutral hydrogen radiates at. Hydrogen is abundant in our universe, so this frequency is commonly observed in astronomy.
At first blush, observing in this frequency to look for alien transmissions might seem like a fool’s errand; if the universe is humming in hydrogen noise, why would aliens bother using that frequency to ping their extraterrestrial neighbors?
Through SETI logic, the frequency of neutral hydrogen might be used by advanced civilizations as a kind of interstellar water cooler. It is the most abundant signal in the universe, every intelligent life-form would know this. So why not use 1420MHz as THE frequency to communicate across the light-years in hopes that other civilizations might already be tuned in?
But a SETI signal would need to stand out from the crowd — it would need to be powerful and possess other qualities that hint at its artificial nature. But should a comet quickly pass through the observing window of a radio telescope, Paris predicted that the received 1420MHz signal might mimic that of an artificial source.
And this year, an opportunity presented itself. Comet 266P/Christensen would pass through the sky in a similar orbital position as it did in 1977. During an observing campaign from November 2016 to February 2017, Paris studied the radio frequencies coming from the region and from the comet itself. He also compared these observations with other known comets.
The upshot: 266P is indeed producing a strong 1420MHz signal, as are other comets.
“The results of this investigation, therefore, conclude that cometary spectra are detectable at 1420 MHz and, more importantly, that the 1977 “Wow!” Signal was a natural phenomenon from a solar system body,” he writes in a study published in the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences
It appears that, in this case, the signal wasn’t aliens trying to make contact with us; it was a chance comet that just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Imagine speeding down the highway and plowing into an unfortunate swarm of mosquitoes. Now imagine that you had the ability to precisely measure the mass of each mosquito, the speed at which it was traveling and the direction it was going before it exploded over your windscreen.
Granted, the technology to accomplish that probably isn’t feasible in such an uncontrolled environment. Factors such as vibration from the car’s motor and tires on the road, plus wind and air turbulence will completely drown out any “splat” from a minuscule insect’s body, rendering any signal difficult to decipher from noise.
The European LISA Pathfinder spacecraft is a proof of concept mission that’s currently in space, orbiting a region of gravitational stability between the Earth and the sun — called the L1 point located a million miles away. The spacecraft was launched there in late 2015 to carry out precision tests of instruments that will eventually be used in the space-based gravitational wave detector eLISA. Inside the payload is a miniaturized laser interferometer system that measures the distance between two test masses.
When launched in 2034, eLISA (which stands for Evolved Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) will see three spacecraft, orbiting the sun at the L1 point, firing ultra-precise lasers at one another as part of a space-based gravitational wave detector. Now we actually know gravitational waves exist — after the US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (or LIGO) detected the space-time ripples created after the collisions of black holes — excitement is building that we might, one day, be able to measure other phenomena, such as the ultra-low frequency gravitational waves that were created during the Big Bang.
But the only way we can do this is to send stunningly precise interferometers into space, away from our vibration-filled atmosphere to stand a chance of detecting some of the faintest space-time rumbles in our cosmos that would otherwise be drowned out by a passing delivery truck or windy day. And LISA Pathfinder is currently out there, testing a tiny laser interferometer in a near-perfect gravitational free-fall, making the slightest of slight adjustments with its “ultra-precise micro-propulsion system.”
Although LISA Pathfinder is a test (albeit a history-making test of incredible engineering ingenuity), NASA thinks that it could actually be used as an observatory in its own right; not for hunting gravitational waves, but for detecting comet dust.
Like our mosquito-windscreen analogy, spacecraft get hit by tiny particles all the time, and LISA Pathfinder is no exception. These micrometeoroides come from eons of evaporating comets and colliding asteroids. Although measuring less than the size of a grain of sand, these tiny particles zip around interplanetary space at astonishing speeds — well over 22,000 miles per hour (that’s 22 times faster than a hyper-velocity rifle round) — and can damage spacecraft over time, slowly eroding unprotected hardware.
Therefore, it would be nice if we could create a map of regions in the solar system that contain lots of these particles so we can be better prepared to face the risk. Although models of solar system evolution help and we can estimate the distribution of these particles, they’ve only ever been measured near Earth, so it would be advantageous to find the “ground truth” and measure them directly from another, unexplored region of the solar system.
This is where LISA Pathfinder comes in.
As the spacecraft gets hit by these minuscule particles, although they are tiny, their high speed ensures they pack a measurable punch. As scientists want the test weights inside the spacecraft to be completely shielded from any external force — whether that’s radiation pressure from the sun or marauding micro-space rocks — the spacecraft has been engineered to be an ultra-precise container that carefully adjusts its orientation an exact amount to directly counter these external forces (hence the “ultra-precise micro-propulsion system”).
This bit is pretty awesome: Whenever these tiny space particles hit the spacecraft, it compensates for the impact and that compensation is registered as a “blip” in the telemetry being beamed back to Earth. After careful analysis of the various data streams, researchers are learning a surprising amount of information about these micrometeoroides — such as their mass, speed, direction of travel and even their possible origin! — all for the ultimate goal of getting to know the tiny pieces of junk that whiz around space.
“Every time microscopic dust strikes LISA Pathfinder, its thrusters null out the small amount of momentum transferred to the spacecraft,” said Diego Janches, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “We can turn that around and use the thruster firings to learn more about the impacting particles. One team’s noise becomes another team’s data.”
So, it turns out that you can precisely measure a mosquito impact on your car’s windshield — so long as that “mosquito” is a particle of space dust and your “car” is a spacecraft a million miles from Earth.
NASA put together a great video, watch it:
Aside: So it turned out that I inadvertently tested the “car-mosquito” hypothesis when driving home from Las Vegas — though some of these were a lot bigger than mosquitoes…
A NASA spacecraft, a lonely comet and a Valentine’s date with no comparison.
Last night, NASA’s veteran Stardust-NExT mission successfully visited its second comet, Tempel 1. Having already been visited by NASA’s Deep Impact mission in 2005, it’s hard not to wonder whether Tempel 1 was a little apprehensive. Deep Impact did lob a refrigerator-sized copper impactor into the comet’s surface during the 2005 encounter, so I think we can forgive the comet some pre-date jitters.
Fortunately, Stardust was the perfect date (no impactors, silverware, dishes or bottles were thrown), just a peaceful flyby, during which the spacecraft beamed dozens of photos back to Earth. To quote Joe Veverka, Stardust-NExT principal investigator: “It was 1,000 percent successful!”
Alas, although the date was a success, there won’t be the sound of wedding bells any time soon. Stardust is now powering away from the comet at a breakneck speed. Was it something Tempel 1 said?