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Hubble Observes 1st Confirmed Interstellar Comet

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Posted October 17, 2019

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has given astronomers their best look yet at an interstellar visitor — comet 2I/Borisov — whose speed and trajectory indicate it has come from beyond our solar system.

This Hubble image, taken on Oct. 12, 2019, is the sharpest view of the comet to date. Hubble reveals a central concentration of dust around the nucleus (which is too small to be seen by Hubble).

Comet 2I/Borisov is only the second such interstellar object known to have passed through the solar system. In 2017, the first identified interstellar visitor, an object officially named ‘Oumuamua, swung within 24 million miles of the Sun before racing out of the solar system. “Whereas ‘Oumuamua appeared to be a rock, Borisov is really active, more like a normal comet. It’s a puzzle why these two are so different,” said David Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), leader of the Hubble team who observed the comet.

Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

As the second known interstellar object found to enter our solar system, the comet provides invaluable clues to the chemical composition, structure and dust characteristics of planetary building blocks presumably forged in an alien star system a long time ago and far away.

This is a time-lapse sequence compressing Hubble Space Telescope observations of comet 2I/Borisov, spanning a seven-hour period. As the second known interstellar object to enter our solar system, the comet is moving along at a breakneck speed of 110,000 miles per hour. To photograph the comet Hubble has to track it, like a photographer tracking a racetrack horse. Therefore, background stars are streaked in the exposure frames. An artificial satellite also crosses the field of view. Hubble reveals a central concentration of dust around an unseen nucleus. Credits: NASA, ESA and J. DePasquale (STScI)

“Though another star system could be quite different from our own, the fact that the comet’s properties appear to be very similar to those of the solar system’s building blocks is very remarkable,” said Amaya Moro-Martin of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Hubble photographed the comet at a distance of 260 million miles from Earth. The comet is falling past the Sun and will make its closest approach to the Sun on Dec. 7, 2019, when it will be twice as far from the Sun as Earth.

The comet is following a hyperbolic path around the Sun, and currently is blazing along at an extraordinary speed of 110,000 miles per hour. “It’s traveling so fast it almost doesn’t care that the Sun is there,” said Jewitt.

By the middle of 2020 the comet will streak past Jupiter’s distance of 500 million miles on its way back into interstellar space where it will drift for untold millions of years before skirting close to another star system.

Source: NASA

 

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