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Astronomers snap photo of second known interstellar object

Published Sep 16th, 2019 9:41PM EDT
interstellar comet
Image: Gemini Observatory/NSF/AURA

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The astronomy world received a rare treat last week when an object presumed to be from outside our own solar system was spotted for only the second time ever. At the time, very little was known about the interstellar visitor, but in the days since its initial discovery by an amateur skywatcher, high-powered telescopes have been directed at the object to get a better look.

Now, the Gemini Observatory has released a stunning image of the object, which has been named C/2019 Q4 (Borisov). The object, which is now believed to be a comet, is easily identifiable thanks to its hazy, cone-shaped tail.

Detecting objects that may have come from outside of our own little stellar neighborhood can be difficult, but this particular comet revealed its nature rather quickly. The comet zoomed into our system from an angle that made it abundantly clear that it didn’t originate here.

This NASA animation shows the comet’s estimated path:

“The comet’s current velocity is high, about 93,000 mph [150,000 kph], which is well above the typical velocities of objects orbiting the Sun at that distance,” Davide Farnocchia of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies said in a statement. “The high velocity indicates not only that the object likely originated from outside our solar system, but also that it will leave and head back to interstellar space.”

Based on current observations, the comet is headed toward the inner solar system, and in late October it will cross the flat plane that defines the orbits of the planets in our system. That means it’ll still be visible for several months, giving astronomers plenty of time to study it and perhaps even calculate its origin.

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