Celestial objects like comets are often spotted on their way out of the main part of the solar system and back to its outskirts.
But one new discovery thrilled the astronomers: We have found a huge new object that is on its way from the far, far outer solar system. Within the next decade, it could just miss Saturn’s orbit by a hair before returning to the edge of our solar system.
“This is great – we have a decade to watch it closely and learn more about it,” said Samantha Lawler, professor of astronomy at the University of Regina Inverse. “S.o it is really a fantastic discovery. “
The discovery was announced on Saturday, and astronomers are currently doing follow-up observations on the new object UN271 from 2014 to find out some things. For example, its distance – now and in the near future.
- Distances in the solar system are often measured in astronomical units (AU), or the distance between the center of the earth and the center of the sun, approximately 93 million miles.
- At the moment, 2014 UN271 is about 22 AU from the Sun. For reference, Neptune is approximately 29.7 AU from the Sun.
- Based on preliminary observations, it is expected to be up to 10.9 AU from the Sun by 2031. (Saturn is between 9 and 10.1 AU from the Sun, depending on its orbit.)
- The property has covered 7 AU in the last seven years.
- It could come from far away 14,000 AU. (Some estimates take it further.)
- In such an eccentric orbit, it takes about 600,000 years to orbit our star.
Then there is the size. It could be anywhere from 62 to 230 miles wide. If it goes more towards the former, it is a massive comet. When the latter is far, it might have rounded and differentiated itself inside to become a dwarf planet.
How was UN271 discovered in 2014?
The newly discovered object was named UN271 in 2014 and was recently identified in data collected by the Dark Energy Survey (DES) from 2014-2018.
DES is an international attempt to study the nature of the mysterious dark matter that is responsible for the expansion of the universe. It does this by surveying large areas of the sky to map millions of galaxies.
Marshall Eubanks, an astronomer and co-founder of Space Initiatives, explains that the same technology can be used to detect objects in the solar system.
“Instead of being a spot here and then here, the spot changes [position]“Says Eubanks Inverse. “And so they did a deep data dive and looked for any moving objects.”
Is 2014 UN217 a planet or a comet?
In the 2014 data, UN217 appeared as a fuzzy shape with only a rough estimate of its size, making it difficult to distinguish between a large comet and a small dwarf planet. But that may change soon.
“A lot of astronomers are going to put a lot of telescopes on this thing,” says Eubanks. “You’ll find out all sorts of things in a relatively short amount of time.”
If it were a comet, it would be one of the largest comets ever discovered. The two largest comets to be visited beyond Saturn’s orbit were both about 60 miles in diameter, while most were much, much smaller.
“We find a lot of comets in very similar orbits, but they’re usually much smaller,” says Lawler. “This is possibly the largest object in this type of orbit that we have ever found.”
In order for it to be a comet, astronomers wait to see if it shows the familiar tail of a comet that forms when icy material from the comet’s surface is evaporated from solar radiation.
On the other hand, it could be a dwarf planet from the Oort cloud.
The Oort cloud is a theoretical cloud of small icy objects that surround the sun at a distance of up to 3.2 light years. If the object is actually 14,000 AU away, the greatest distance from the Sun would be 0.22 light years.
Can we visit UN217 in 2014?
After its discovery was announced, astronomers suggested sending a probe to the object to determine its mysterious nature. The 2014 UN217 exploration could tell us about an untold part of the history of the solar system.
With a sufficiently fast missile and a sufficiently fast turnaround time, it is possible to obtain a flyby mission of the object. In addition, space missions such as New Horizons or the European Space Agency’s upcoming Jupiter lunar probe JUICE could use their instruments to study them remotely.
“We don’t know exactly where these really wide Oort cloud tracks in the solar system come from,” says Lawler. “Did they form closer to the sun and scatter from Jupiter, or did they form closer to Neptune and scatter from Neptune?”
“It tells us a lot about the history of our solar system, which is really nice.”