'Oumuamua: The Interstellar Oddity That Puzzled Scientists


| LAST UPDATE 03/29/2023

By Stanley Wickens
cosmic object 'Oumuamua mystery
Javier Zayas Photography via Getty Images

In the vast expanse of space, nothing is static, and anything unusual is enough to stir the imagination. In 2017, scientists detected a peculiar cosmic guest, zipping through our solar system at an unexplainable pace. The elongated, reddish object was dubbed ‘Oumuamua, a Hawaiian word meaning "messenger from afar" or "scout." This interstellar visitor was unlike anything scientists had ever seen in the cosmos. With no tail or typical comet features, the object looked like a cigar, but new findings suggest it is now a "pancake" or dish-shaped. But scientists may have finally solved the mystery surrounding the strange object...

Researchers have recently come up with a theory that explains why ‘Oumuamua is moving so quickly. While initial speculations included an extraterrestrial origin, the truth is less far-fetched. According to Jennifer Bergner and Darryl Seligman, who recently published their findings in the science journal Nature, it has to do with something much simpler: the sun. As 'Oumuamua travelled through our cosmic neighborhood, the sun's heat bathed it, causing the icy object to release a particular gas that altered its trajectory. "What’s beautiful about Jenny’s idea is that it’s exactly what should happen to interstellar comets,” Seligman said in a statement. “We had all these stupid ideas, like hydrogen icebergs and other crazy things, and it’s just the most generic explanation."

'Oumuamua mystery interstellar object
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Bergner, a chemist at UC Berkeley who researches icy space objects, and Seligman, who researches planetary science at Cornell University, believe the comet expelled hydrogen gas, providing it with the acceleration it needed. Despite being the first interstellar object detected in our solar system, ‘Oumuamua was not a traditional comet; it lacked the telltale coma or tail seen in other comets, suggesting that it might not behave in the same way. However, researchers predict that with ever-improving telescopes, we will observe more similar interstellar visitors, as other solar systems contain plenty of icy objects.

In our universe, where mysteries abound, ‘Oumuamua might have been an eccentric visitor, but it was not an alien spaceship. Still, the cosmic journey that this foreign object made across galaxies prompts us to contemplate the cosmos and its endless possibilities.

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