Published: Tue, December 19, 2017
Research | By Derrick Holloway

'Oumuamua isn't an alien spaceship - so what is it?

Now, a new analysis of 'Oumuamua, published in Nature, explains how the object may be like a comet without behaving like one.

Scientists have analysed the composition of the rock, and suggest that it is coated in a special crust that allows it to withstand temperatures of more than 300°C without being vaporised.

The first object to visit our solar system from interstellar space is now making a clean getaway from our cosmic neighbourhood.

Researchers believe that comets and asteroids were ejected into interstellar space when our solar system formed and evolved, so assuming that this happens in other planetary systems, too, anything that we learn about our first interstellar visitor could improve our understanding of both our own solar system and others throughout the universe.

Unlike other asteroids or comets previously observed in our solar system, 'Oumuamua is up to 400 meters long and perhaps 10 times as long as it is wide, according to NASA.

"We have discovered that the surface of 'Oumuamua is similar to bodies in our own solar system that are covered in carbon-rich ices, whose structure is modified by exposure to cosmic rays", said Alan Fitzsimmons from Queen's University.

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The rock soared through our solar system last month, causing many scientists to question whether it was a sign of alien life.

However, the scans found "no evidence of artificial signals emanating from the object" and it is not believed to be an alien vessel.

Scientists from Queen's University Belfast led an worldwide team of astronomers - from Britain, the United States, Canada, Taiwan and Chile -tasked with piecing together a profile of 'Oumuamua.

"It's fascinating that the first interstellar object discovered looks so much like a tiny world from our own home system".

She likened the effect of the sun on the greyish-red object to an oven baking a cake.

"Given that this object passed relatively close to our sun as it was travelling through our solar system, one would expect any ices on the surface to basically be heated and it should behave like a comet", Fitzsimmons said. It wasn't actually particularly hot. 'Oumuamua's exterior also consists of an insulating organic-rich material, which might protect any ice that exists within.

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Most comets follow ellipse-shaped orbits around the sun. But further observations of 'Oumuamua showed it wasn't acting much like a comet.

"When we crunched the numbers we found that this crust should insulate the interior of the object so that if there were any ices inside it, it wouldn't change the form".

The Oumuamua is thought to be an asteroid, but its cigar shape is highly unusual for a space rock. Thermal simulations of the carbon-rich layer suggest that if this schmutz were about 40 centimetres thick on 'Oumuamua, it could insulate an ice-rich interior from the heat of stars such as our sun.

"An internal icy composition ruled out", a team wrote in the journal Nature Astronomy. It is quick enough to escape the Sun's gravity, which is odd since all planets, asteroids and comets belonging to our system follow paths around it.

While initial scans have found little evidence that 'Oumuamua - a Hawaiian word meaning a "messenger from afar" - is the product of an alien civilisation, as some have suggested, new research, led by scientists from Queen's University Belfast, is beginning to reveal more details about the mysterious visitor.

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