Newly Discovered Comet Likely An Interstellar Visitor

The discovery of a new comet scientists believe to be an “interstellar object” has set the astronomy community abuzz. It’s definitely a comet. New color images from Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano show that it has a tail. 

If officially confirmed, the object would be only the second of its kind detected, according to a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. The newly found comet, dubbed C/2019 Q4, was discovered by Gennady Borisov, a Crimean astronomer working out of an observatory in Nauchnij, Crimea.

Scientists believe the comet to be interstellar after studying its trajectory and velocity.  “The comet’s current velocity is high, about 150,000 kph, which is well above the typical velocities of objects orbiting the Sun at that distance,” Davide Farnocchia, an astronomer at the Jet Propulsion Laboatory, said in a statement. Too fast for the sun’s gravity to hang onto it.

“The high velocity indicates not only that the object likely originated from outside our solar system, it came from the stars….but also that it will leave and head back to interstellar space,” he added. The comet — consisting of an icy body surrounded by a cloud of dust and particles — is currently approaching the sun, but the closest it is projected to come towards Earth is about 190 million miles, according to the NASA statement.

The first known interstellar object to visit our solar system, the history-making asteroid named the ‘Oumuamua, was discovered by astronomers in October 2017 and puzzled the scientific community at the time, even setting off since-debunked rumors of extraterrestrial activity.

‘Oumuamua is a Hawaiian name for “a messenger from afar arriving first” and has been described by astronomer Paul Chodas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as “a strange visitor from a faraway star system, shaped like nothing we’ve ever seen in our own solar system neighbourhood.”

On Sept. 12th in Weißenkirchen, Austria, astrophotographer Michael Jäger used a 12-inch telescope to capture his first short video of Comet Borisov:

Note the grey speck moving near the center of the animation. That’s the comet. “It is dim because it is still so far from the sun–about 2.75 AU away,” notes Jäger. “Although it has an extraordinary orbit, so far Comet Borisov looks rather ordinary, much like other comets I have seen at such distances.”

Because Comet Borisov is still just entering the solar system, astronomers will have plenty of time to study it in the months ahead. Is it truly interstellar? What are comets from other solar systems made of? Answers to these and many other questions are forthcoming.

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