NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

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]

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iStock
NASA Has a Plan to Stop the Next Asteroid That Threatens Life on Earth
iStock
iStock

An asteroid colliding catastrophically with Earth within your lifetime is unlikely, but not out of the question. According to NASA, objects large enough to threaten civilization hit the planet once every few million years or so. Fortunately, NASA has a plan for dealing with the next big one when it does arrive, Forbes reports.

According to the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan [PDF] released by the White House on June 21, there are a few ways to handle an asteroid. The first is using a gravity tractor to pull it from its collision course. It may sound like something out of science fiction, but a gravity tractor would simply be a large spacecraft flying beside the asteroid and using its gravitational pull to nudge it one way or the other.

Another option would be to fly the spacecraft straight into the asteroid: The impact would hopefully be enough to alter the object's speed and trajectory. And if the asteroid is too massive to be stopped by a spacecraft, the final option is to go nuclear. A vehicle carrying a nuclear device would be launched at the space rock with the goal of either sending it in a different direction or breaking it up into smaller pieces.

Around 2021, NASA will test its plan to deflect an asteroid using a spacecraft, but even the most foolproof defense strategy will be worthless if we don’t see the asteroid coming. For that reason, the U.S. government will also be working on improving Near-Earth Object (NEO) detection, the technology NASA uses to track asteroids. About 1500 NEOs are already detected each year, and thankfully, most of them go completely unnoticed by the public.

[h/t Forbes]

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Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Stephen Hawking’s Memorial Will Beam His Words Toward the Nearest Black Hole
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

An upcoming memorial for Stephen Hawking is going to be out of this world. The late physicist’s words, set to music, will be broadcast by satellite toward the nearest black hole during a June 15 service in the UK, the BBC reports.

During his lifetime, Hawking signed up to travel to space on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceship, but he died before he ever got the chance. (He passed away in March.) Hawking’s daughter Lucy told the BBC that the memorial's musical tribute is a “beautiful and symbolic gesture that creates a link between our father's presence on this planet, his wish to go into space, and his explorations of the universe in his mind.” She described it as "a message of peace and hope, about unity and the need for us to live together in harmony on this planet."

Titled “The Stephen Hawking Tribute,” the music was written by Greek composer Vangelis, who created the scores for Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire. It will play while Hawking’s ashes are interred at Westminster Abbey, near where Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin are buried, according to Cambridge News. After the service, the piece will be beamed into space from the European Space Agency’s Cebreros Station in Spain. The target is a black hole called 1A 0620-00, “which lives in a binary system with a fairly ordinary orange dwarf star,” according to Lucy Hawking.

Hawking wasn't the first person to predict the existence of black holes (Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity accounted for them back in the early 1900s), but he spoke at length about them throughout his career and devised mathematical theorems that gave credence to their existence in the universe.

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch, a friend of the Hawking family who portrayed the late scientist in the BBC film Hawking, will speak at the service. In addition to Hawking's close friends and family, British astronaut Tim Peake and several local students with disabilities have also been invited to attend.

[h/t BBC]

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