An interstellar object is an astronomical object, other than a star or substar, that is located in interstellar space and is not gravitationally bound to a star. The term can also be applied to objects that are on an interstellar trajectory but are temporarily passing close to a star, such as certain asteroids and comets (including exocomets).
Due to present observational difficulties, an interstellar object can usually only be detected if it passes through the Solar System, where it can be distinguished by its strongly hyperbolic trajectory, indicating that it is not gravitationally bound to the Sun. In contrast, gravitationally bound objects follow elliptic orbits around the Sun, like most asteroids, comets, and objects in the Oort cloud.
It is possible for objects orbiting a star to be ejected due to interaction with a third massive body, thereby becoming interstellar objects. Such a process was initiated in early 1980s when C/1980 E1, initially gravitationally bound to the Sun, passed near Jupiter and was accelerated sufficiently to reach escape velocity from the Solar System. This changed its orbit from elliptical to hyperbolic and made it the most eccentric known object at the time, with an eccentricity of 1.057. It is headed for interstellar space.
The first discovered, and to date only known, interstellar object is ʻOumuamua (1I/ʻOumuamua, previously called C/2017 U1 and A/2017 U1). The object has an orbital eccentricity of about 1.20, indicating it did not originate from the Solar System.
Recent research suggests that asteroid 514107 Kaʻepaokaʻawela may be a former interstellar object, captured some 4.5 billion years ago, as evidenced by its co-orbital motion with Jupiter and its retrograde orbit around the Sun.
With the first discovery of an interstellar object, the IAU has proposed a new series of small-body designations for interstellar objects, the I numbers, similar to the comet numbering system. The Minor Planet Center will assign the numbers. Provisional designations for interstellar objects will be handled using the C/ or A/ prefix, (comet or asteroid) as appropriate.
Current models of Oort cloud formation predict that more comets are ejected into interstellar space than are retained in the Oort cloud, with estimates varying from 3 to 100 times as many. Other simulations suggest that 90–99% of comets are ejected. There is no reason to believe comets formed in other star systems would not be similarly scattered.
If interstellar comets exist, they must occasionally pass through the inner Solar System. They would approach the Solar System with random velocities, mostly from the direction of the constellation Hercules because the Solar System is moving in that direction, called the solar apex. Until the discovery of 'Oumuamua, the fact that no comet with a speed greater than the Sun's escape velocity had been observed was used to place upper limits to their density in interstellar space. A paper by Torbett indicated that the density was no more than 1013 (10 trillion) comets per cubic parsec. Other analyses, of data from LINEAR, set the upper limit at 4.5×10−4/AU3, or 1012 (1 trillion) comets per cubic parsec. A more recent estimate by David C. Jewitt and colleagues, following the detection of 'Oumuamua, predicts that "The steady-state population of similar, ~100 m scale interstellar objects inside the orbit of Neptune is ~1×104, each with a residence time of ~10 years."
An interstellar comet can probably, on rare occasions, be captured into a heliocentric orbit while passing through the Solar System. Computer simulations show that Jupiter is the only planet massive enough to capture one, and that this can be expected to occur once every sixty million years. Comets Machholz 1 and Hyakutake C/1996 B2 are possible examples of such comets. They have atypical chemical makeups for comets in the Solar System.
1I/2017 U1 (ʻOumuamua)
A dim object was discovered on October 19, 2017 by the Pan-STARRS telescope, at an apparent magnitude of 20. The observations showed that it follows a strongly hyperbolic trajectory around the Sun at a speed greater than the solar escape velocity, in turn meaning that it is not gravitationally bound to the Solar System and likely to be an interstellar object. It was initially named C/2017 U1 because it was assumed to be a comet, and was renamed to A/2017 U1 after no cometary activity was found on October 25. After its interstellar nature was confirmed, it was renamed to 1I/ʻOumuamua – '1' because it is the first such object to be discovered, 'I' for interstellar, and "‘Oumuamua" is a Hawaiian word meaning "a messenger from afar arriving first".
The lack of cometary activity from ʻOumuamua suggests an origin from the inner regions of whatever stellar system it came from, losing all surface volatiles within the frost line, much like the rocky asteroids, extinct comets and damocloids we know from our Solar System. This is only a suggestion, as ʻOumuamua might very well have lost all surface volatiles to eons of cosmic radiation exposure in interstellar space, developing a thick crust layer after it was expelled from its parent system.
ʻOumuamua has an eccentricity of 1.199, which is the highest eccentricity ever observed for any object in the Solar System by a wide margin.
|C/2010 X1 (Elenin)
(For comparison when
200AU from the Sun)
|1I/2017 U1 (ʻOumuamua)||26.33 km/s|
(in peer review)
In November 2018, Harvard astronomers Amir Siraj and Avi Loeb reported that there should be hundreds of 'Oumuamua-size interstellar objects in the Solar System, based on calculated orbital characteristics, and presented several centaur candidates such as 2017 SV13 and 2018 TL6. These are all orbiting the Sun, but may have been captured in the distant past.
On 8 January 2014 a bolide which has been identified by Loeb and Siraj as a potentially interstellar object originating from an unbound hyperbolic orbit exploded in the atmosphere over northern Papua New Guinea. It had an eccentricity of 2.4, an inclination of 10°, and a speed of 43.8 km/s when outside of the Solar System. This would make it notably faster than ʻOumuamua which was 26.3 km/s when outside the Solar System. The meteor is estimated to have been 0.9 meters in diameter. Other astronomers doubt the interstellar origin because the meteor catalog used does not report uncertainties on the incoming velocity. The validity of any single data point (especially for smaller meteors) remains questionable.
- Exocomet – A comet outside the Solar System
- Hyperbolic asteroid
- List of Solar System objects by greatest aphelion
- Masks, Star Trek episode about a possible rogue comet
- Rogue planet – A planetary-mass object that orbits the galaxy directly
- Project Lyra, study of probe missions to catch 'Oumuamua and similar objects
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