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38 MIN READ TIME

Interstellar Visitor: The Strange Asteroid from a Faraway System

DAVID MORRISON

A staple of science fiction has always been aliens from other worlds. As science has revealed the inhospitableness of planets such as Mars and Venus, the source of these fictional visitors has increasingly moved to deep space. Now it has happened—the first visit from beyond. In late 2017, an interstellar asteroid named ‘Oumuamua swept through the solar system. Inevitably, it has stirred speculation that it could even be a spacecraft, a messenger from beyond our solar system.

An artist’s conception of the highly elongated interstellar asteroid. There is no telescopic image resolving the fast-moving object.
Illustration: M. Kommesser, European Southern Observatory

This visitor was discovered on October 19, 2017, with the Pan-STARRS optical telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii, a part of the NASA-supported Spaceguard Survey of asteroids that come close to the Earth. At the time of its discovery, it was 33 million kilometers from Earth and had already passed its closest point to both the Sun and the Earth. As astronomers followed up on the discovery, it quickly became apparent that the orbit of ‘Oumuamua was unlike anything seen before. All members of the solar system are gravitationally bound to the Sun, with orbits that are ellipses. This object, however, was travelling far too fast to be part of the Sun’s family. Its orbit is a hyperbola, and when discovered it was already rapidly leaving the inner solar system, having passed close enough to the Sun to bend its orbit dramatically.

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About Skeptical Inquirer

The War on Science, Anti-Intellectualism, and ‘Alternative Ways of Knowing’ in 21st-Century America

Other Articles in this Issue


Editor’s Letter
When CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer were founded, in 1976,
NEWS AND COMMENT
A staple of science fiction has always been aliens from
In December 2017, The New York Times reported on the
It resembles a scene from a James Bond film. Between
A committee of twenty Cuban scientists tasked with examining the
Six new fellows have been elected to the Committee for
It’s finally happened. Homeopathic remedies are going to come under
Julie Payette is far from your usual bureaucratic official. Even
New Mexico has a vibrant scientific co mmunity, with two
COMMENTARY
I have often written in the Skeptical Inquirer about how
CONFERENCE REPORT
A Festival of Scientific Skepticism or a Theme Park for Science and Reason? CSICon Las Vegas 2017 Had It All
Center for Inquiry (CFI) Communications Director Paul Fidalgo covered CSICon 2017 “live” for CFI Live in a series of brief reports on CFI’s website. Here are a few selections. (For others, go to centerforinquiry.live/2017.)
INVESTIGATIVE FILES
David Dominé is author of a series of three books
THE SCIENCE OF SCIENCE COMMUNICATION
Harnessing the Power of Opinion-Leaders across Communities
BEHAVIOR & BELIEF
Let us stipulate that there is no magic. Sleight-of-hand, deception,
SKEPTICAL INQUIREE
Q: “I enjoyed your recent investigation into the 2016 Mall
FEATURES
The decades-long academic assault on science has bewildered the American public about the role and function of science, promoted anti-intellectualism, and politically empowered purveyors of supernaturalism and paranormal beliefs
There are several flagrant examples of hype from cancer and cardiac therapy. The drugs Avastin and Opdivo, which have serious problems, have been greatly overhyped. Statins, which are effective in saving lives from heart attacks and stroke, have been subjected to negative hype meant to discourage their use
Here’s a geologist’s critical analysis of false perceptions held by many creationists about the origin of the Grand Canyon and the age of the Earth
Rather than creating a glorious new literature of positive art, Colin Wilson delivered an odd mix of dodgy philosophy, pulp novels, and paranormal studies—the latter often downright silly
REVIEWS
For most of human history, people have assumed that some
When odd birds sing their strange songs, does it change
NEW AND NOTABLE
Listing does not preclude future review
You Are the Universe: Discovering Your Cosmic Self and Why
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
In Jeffrey Debies-Carl’s conspiracy legends article in the November/December 2017
THE LAST LAUGH
I’m not sure I get the point of the story