Shomporko Desk: Three years after a mysterious cigar-shaped interstellar object was spotted hurtling through our solar system, starting inquiries of outsider spaceships and solar sails, a new study recommends this visitor may actually have been the cosmic version of a massive iceberg, shaped in the origin of stars out of solidified hydrogen gas. And it could be one of many.
Since it was first spotted by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii in October 2017, the 400 metre-long ‘Oumuamua — which means “messenger from afar arriving first” or “scout” in Hawaiian — has sparked numerous studies and research trying to unravel its mysteries.
‘Oumuamua was our first visitor from a different solar system, discovered while already on its way out of our system, and it defied the known rules for asteroids and comets. Its oblong shape was interesting but most baffling was its speed, which was faster than should’ve been possible if it was being propelled through space purely by gravitational force.
It was observed moving at an estimated 26 kilometres per second and was accelerating — with no visible reason for the acceleration. Harvard researchers speculated that this could mean it was an alien probe, sent from deep space to investigate us, but further studies debunked this tantalizing prospect.
One space object that can accelerate is comets, but researchers didn’t think ‘Oumuamua could be a comet at first due to the fact that it didn’t seem to have a gas tail or a coma, which is the term for the fuzzy atmosphere of gas and dust surrounding the icy centre of a comet.
This new study, written by researchers from the University of Chicago and Yale and accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, suggests an answer.
Most comets are composed of dust, rock, and ice made largely from frozen water, but also some other frozen substances, including ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane.
Researchers knew how fast ‘Oumuamua had been seen moving, so they worked backwards to see which elements could account for that acceleration once burned up. Frozen hydrogen gas explained ‘Oumuamua’s movement better than any other type, and would need to “cover only a fraction” of the object’s surface, the paper said.
To solidify the theory, hydrogen gas is “difficult to observe,” according to the paper, and then outgassed H2 would not have been picked up by the telescopes observing ‘Oumuamua.
Hydrogen gas is “the dominant constituent of Giant Molecular Clouds,” which are enormous clusters of gases spanning hundreds of light-years in size.
The densest parts of these clouds are where stars are born. The temperatures within these dense cores can also be some of the coldest in the universe. The paper suggests that “macroscopic bodies composed of frozen molecular hydrogen gas that are not incorporated into stellar systems,” are then “released into low-velocity dispersion galactic orbits,” meaning that objects such as ‘Oumuamua are some of the leftovers from the process of creating stars.
The paper estimates that ‘Oumuamua could be 100 million years old.