Scientists Spot the First Interstellar Visitor to Our Solar System

 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

On October 19, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope spotted what resembled a small asteroid or comet. Judging from its movements, it wasn't a typical space rock. Unlike a normal asteroid or comet, the object was streaking too quickly through space to orbit the Sun. The researchers then realized that they'd likely caught sight of our first confirmed interstellar visitor, according to National Geographic.

The object is called A/2017 U1, and it's probably less than 1300 feet wide, according to NASA. It still hasn't been defined, composition-wise, but it could be the remains of an exoplanet. It may have been flung from a still-unknown star system long ago, and eventually journeyed through our solar system. Its existence is significant because it could provide scientists with new insights into how stars and planets form. These likely develop when chunks of rock and ice are hurtled into interstellar space, but until now, researchers had seen only tiny particles of this material.

Rob Weryk, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IfA), was reportedly the first to spot A/2017 U1, although he also compared notes with a second researcher, Marco Micheli, who observed the phenomenon through the European Space Agency's telescope in Spain's Canary Islands. After calculating the rock's trajectory and speed, Weryk reported the observation to the Minor Planet Center, which collects observational data for asteroids and comets.

"We have been waiting for this day for decades," Paul Chodas, manager of NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, said in a press statement. "It's long been theorized that such objects exist—asteroids or comets moving around between the stars and occasionally passing through our solar system—but this is the first such detection. So far, everything indicates this is likely an interstellar object, but more data would help to confirm it."

Right now, A/2017 U1 is speeding away from Earth at a rate of 98,000 miles an hour. It grows dimmer by the day—giving astronomers just a small window of time to study the remarkable discovery.

Learn more about how scientists spot near-Earth asteroids by watching NASA's video below.

[h/t National Geographic]

Thursday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Guitar Kits, Memory-Foam Pillows, and Smartwatches

Amazon
Amazon
As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 3. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

3D Map Shows the Milky Way Galaxy in Unprecedented Detail

ESA
ESA

It's our galactic home, but the Milky Way contains many mysteries scientists are working to unravel. Now, as The Guardian reports, astronomers at the European Space Agency have built a 3D map that provides the most detailed look at our galaxy yet.

The data displayed in the graphic below has been seven years in the making. In 2013, the ESA launched its Gaia observatory from Kourou in French Guiana. Since then, two high-powered telescopes aboard the spacecraft have been sweeping the skies, recording the locations, movements, and changes in brightness of more than a billion stars in the Milky Way and beyond.

Using Gaia's findings, astronomers put together a 3D map that allows scientists to study the galaxy in greater depth than ever before. The data has made it possible to measure the acceleration of the solar system. By comparing the solar system's movement to that of more remote celestial objects, researchers have determined that the solar system is slowly falling toward the center of the galaxy at an acceleration of 7 millimeters per second per year, The Guardian reports. Additionally, the map reveals how matter is distributed throughout the Milky Way. With this information, scientists should be able to get an estimate of the galaxy's mass.

Gaia's observations may also hold clues to the Milky Way's past and future. The data holds remnants of the 10-billion-year-old disc that made up the edge of the star system. By comparing it to the shape of the Milky Way today, astronomers have determined that the disc will continue to expand as new stars are created.

The Gaia observatory was launched with the mission of gathering an updated star census. The previous census was conducted in 1957, and Gaia's new data reaches four times farther and accounts for 100 times more stars.

[h/t The Guardian]