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Something weird flew past Earth and scientists still don’t know what it was

Published Oct 27th, 2017 12:51PM EDT
unidentified object
Image: Hubble Space Telescope / ESA

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When it comes to the objects floating around in our solar system, scientists have a pretty good handle on what they all are. Aside from planets, dwarf planets, and moons, many smaller bodies — like comets, asteroids, etc. — have been tracked and studied for years, if not decades. Just days ago, something cruised past Earth and was launched out into space thanks to the gravity of the sun, and scientists still can’t say with complete certainty what it was.

The object was originally spotted by astronomers in Hawaii using the PanSTARRS1 telescope. It was careening through space at a speed of 16 miles per second, and it swooped around our sun, passed Earth at a distance of around 15 million miles, and then headed straight back out into space. It was, if you couldn’t already tell, an incredibly unusual event.

Originally thought to be a comet, the mysterious visitor came so close to our star that it should have likely burned up due to the intense heat, but it didn’t. Subsequent observations suggested that the object might actually be an asteroid and not a comet, which would explain its refusal to disintegrate. The most widely accepted current estimates put its size at somewhere around 500 feet in diameter, which is fairly small, but still large enough to do some serious damage to any celestial body it crosses paths with.

Whatever it was, scientists are certain that it wasn’t from our solar system. The object’s trajectory would have made absolutely no sense for something that is orbiting the sun, and the angle at which it approached actually points to it having come from a well known constellation. Unfortunately, the length of time it would have taken to get here muddies the water a bit in terms of predicting its origin.

Regardless of whether it was a comet, asteroid, or something entirely different, it was an incredibly rare event that has sent astronomers rushing to learn more. The International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center has issued a notification asking researchers to devote some time to figuring out more about the object.