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The Strange, Cigar-Shaped Asteroid That Had Astronomers Fascinated
By ELI SHAYOTOVICH
The James Webb Telescope continues to prove space is big and busy; we have 1,113,527 known asteroids zipping around our solar system alone. During the last 4.54 billion years, asteroids, comets, and meteorites hit our planet with devastating effects, so knowing about these objects ahead of time is crucial, and to that end, NASA created the Near-Earth Object Observations Program (NEO) situated on Maui.
On October 19, 2017, Robert Weryck was operating the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System on Maui as part of NASA’s NEO program when he discovered an unusually-shaped object he first thought was an asteroid. But he wasn't sure after finding its orbit "didn't make sense" (via NBC News), so he and European Space Agency colleague Marco Micheli dug further into the data.
They determined it must have come from outside our solar system, making this celestial cigar the first interstellar object ever recorded, and over the next 11 days, the world aimed numerous ground and space-based telescopes at the object to collect as much data as possible before it vanished. Initially, it was labeled a comet, then an asteroid, but it was doing things that neither are typically known to do.
It was an out-of-this-world anomaly and was given the nickname 'Oumuamua, ' meaning "a messenger from afar arriving first" in Hawaiian. Astronomers believe 'Oumuamua came from the direction of the Lyra constellation (via NASA), and once in our inner solar system, it took a hard left at the sun using a gravity assist technique called a gravitational slingshot.
As it sped away, it increased speed, which was highly unusual, and became a point of contention among astronomers. In a paper co-written by Micheli, he concluded something was affecting 'Oumuamua's speed but did not specify what it was, while co-author Davide Farnocchia thinks the speed was outgassing, and co-author Karen Meech argued there were no apparent signs of outgassing.
New findings may change our understanding of 'Oumuamua: it's much smaller than it was first estimated to be, its shape is more like a pancake than a cigar, and some scientists believe 'Oumuamua is made of solid nitrogen, which could explain many of its weird actions (via Space). Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb even thinks 'Oumuamua was alien technology.