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"Oumuamua" brings a new name to a new field

by Nicholas Mazur - Campus Talk
Tue, Feb 20th 2018 09:00 pm

One of the things I love about science is that there is always something new to be discovered. Whenever we think we just about have the universe under control, neatly folded within our realm of understanding, the floor falls out from under us, and we’re back to the drawing board. In this case, rather than the floor falling out from under us, it’s a large, oddly shaped space traveler hurtling through the solar system on some sort of intersystem joyride hellbent on going it’s own way for all eternity (and not even bothering to call before coming over).

Space isn’t the final frontier for nothing. The vast void that sits between us and infinity is filled with enough mysteries to fill countless imaginations (not to mention a classic NBC sci-fi hit T.V. show). Last year, one of these mysteries reared its cold, elongated face to the solar systems. An interstellar object, dubbed “Oumuamua,” passed into the solar system from way out of town. It shot straight past the sun and gave Earth a quick drive-by on its way out back into interstellar space once again. 

Scientists believe that it is made out of either a hard rock or metal, and lacks the gassy quality of an object like a comet. They also note its stretched out, elongated shape is significant, according to The Scientific American. The Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) event took a closer look to make sure it wasn’t broadcasting radio waves or something else that would indicate alien design. You can rest easy, as it found nothing. If E.T. is out there, he left his phone home.

The name for this unique object comes from the fact that it was observed in an observatory in Hawaii. The name Oumuamua means “scout.” Its designation was originally a comet, but then an asteroid, as well as a more general term, “interstellar object.” The classification for this object became quite complicated, as you can see in its name-jumping. The trouble originates because of the fact that Oumuamua is such an isolated and unique case for scientists.

While we talk about meteors, asteroids and comets often in the field of astronomy, and the public considers them fairly common knowledge (though it still has trouble with the difference between an them), we still have quite a bit to learn about these little wanderers. Interstellar objects in particular are something, as you might imagine, that do not visit the neighborhood very often. It is so rare in fact, that this very event of Oumuamua passing through has created a new branch of scientific study. 

Oumuamua left a particularly impactful wake due also to its orbit. When we think of orbit, we tend to think of the natural elliptical orbit of a Bohr atom model or the planetary model, Earth and company making nice, regular circular paths around the sun. Oumuamua, however, has a much different orbit. “Hyperbolic objects,” or objects that do not exhibit a regular, elliptical path are gateways into the past. Scientists can track over 339 hyperbolic objects in the solar system, and have even been able to track objects that have been coming around for visits when humanity was just beginning to leave Africa for the first time. 

According to The Scientific American, this recent visit shows that not only are there other hitchhikers  in the galaxy, but also objects that have shown up in the solar system and moved right in to stay. Scientists wanted to analyze the object up close, but in order to do so, they needed a better window from when they first observed the object in October of 2017. Scientists have been able to land probes on moving objects like comets before. Though it is difficult and a very delicate process, the opportunity to learn up close to a comet like that is worth the risks: this object is not the last and only opportunity to study objectss like these. The solar system is full of planets and gravities that can entice these object to stick around, to change their hyperbolic path. Our solar system can work like a big net, capturing these things and making them a part of the solar system family, keeping them floating around our little neck of the woods. 

Like I said at the beginning of this article, science is something that is constantly pushing into the “new,” into the uncharted and the unexpected. Oumuamua represents not just another object in the solar system to observe, but the start of something new. No longer is this small branch of astronomy theoretical. There is something scientists can point to as tangible, albeit far away. Oumuamua represents another step of humanity and our scientific curiosity into the great unknowns of the universe.

 

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