9 interstellar asteroids?

Hi there! You may have recently heard of 1I/’Oumuamua, initially known as C/2017 U1, then A/2017 U1 (see here), where C stands for comet, A for asteroid, and I for interstellar object. This small body visited us last fall on a hyperbolic orbit, i.e. it came very fast from very far away, flew us by, and then left… and we shall never see it again. ‘Oumuamua has probably been formed in another planetary system, and its visit has motivated numerous studies. Some observed it to determine its shape, its composition, its rotation… and some conducted theoretical studies to understand its origin, its orbit… The study I present you today, Where the Solar system meets the solar neighbourhood: patterns in the distribution of radiants of observed hyperbolic minor bodies, by Carlos and Raúl de la Fuente Marcos, and Sverre J. Aarseth, is a theoretical one, but with a broader scope. This study examines the orbits of 339 objects on hyperbolic orbits, to try to determine their origin, in particular which of them might be true interstellar interlopers. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.


I detail the discovery of ‘Oumuamua there. Since that post, we know that ‘Oumuamua is a red dark object, probably dense. It is tumbling, i.e. does not rotate around a single rotation axis, in about 8 hours. The uncertainties on the rotation period are pretty important, because of this tumbling motion. Something really unexpected is huge variations of brightness, which should reveal either a cigar-shaped object, or an object with extreme variations of albedo, i.e. bright regions alternating with dark ones… but that would be inconsistent with the spectroscopy, revealing a reddish object. This is why the dimensions of ‘Oumuamua are estimated to be 230 × 35 × 35 meters.

Artist's impression of 'Oumuamua. © ESO/M. Kornmesser
Artist’s impression of ‘Oumuamua. © ESO/M. Kornmesser

One wonders where ‘Oumuamua comes from. An extrapolation of its orbit shows that it comes from the current direction of the star Vega, in constellation Lyra… but when it was there, the star was not there, since it moved… We cannot actually determine around which star, and when, ‘Oumuamua has been formed.

Anyway, it was a breakthrough discovery, as the first certain interstellar object, with an eccentricity of 1.2. But other bodies have eccentricities larger than 1, which make them unstable in the Solar System, i.e. gravitationally unbound to the Sun… Could some of them be interstellar interlopers? This is the question addressed by the study. If you want to understand what I mean by eccentricity, hyperbolic orbit… just read the next section.

Hyperbolic orbits

The simplest orbit you can find is a circular one: the Sun is at the center, and the planetary object moves on a circle around the Sun. In such a case, the eccentricity of the orbit is 0. Now, if you get a little more eccentric, the trajectory becomes elliptical, and you will have periodic variations of the distance between the Sun and the object. And the Sun will not be at the center of the trajectory anymore, but at a focus. The eccentricity of the Earth is 0.017, which induces a closest distance of 147 millions km, and a largest one of 152 millions km… these variations are pretty limited. However, Halley’s comet has an eccentricity of 0.97. And if you exceed 1, then the trajectory will not be an ellipse anymore, but a branch of hyperbola. In such a case, the object can just make a fly-by of the Sun, before going back to the interstellar space.

Wait, it is a little more complicated than that. In the last paragraph, I assumed that the eccentricity, and more generally the orbital elements, were constant. This is true if you have only the Sun and your object (2-body, or Kepler, problem). But you have the gravitational perturbations of planets, stars,… and the consequence is that these orbital elements vary with time. You so may have a hyperbolic orbit becoming elliptical, in which case an interstellar interloper gets trapped, or conversely a Solar System object might be ejected, its eccentricity getting larger than 1.

The authors listed three known mechanisms, likely to eject a Solar System object:

  1. Close encounter with a planet,
  2. Secular interaction with the Galactic disk (in other words, long term effects due to the cumulative interactions with the stars constituting our Milky Way),
  3. Close encounter with a star.

339 hyperbolic objects

The authors identified 339 objects, which had an eccentricity larger than 1 on 2018 January 18. The objects were identified thanks to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Small-Body Database, and the Minor Planet Center database. The former is due to NASA, and the latter to the International Astronomical Union.

Once the authors got their inputs, they numerically integrated their orbits backward, over 100 kyr. These integrations were made thanks to a dedicated N-body code, powerful and optimized for long-term integration. Such algorithm is far from trivial. It consists in numerically integrating the equations of the motion of all of these 339 objects, perturbed by the Sun, the eight planets, the system Pluto-Charon, and the largest asteroids, in paying attention to the numerical errors at each iteration. This step is critical, to guarantee the validity of the results.

Some perturbed by another star

And here is the result: the authors have found that some of these objects had an elliptical orbit 100 kyr ago, meaning that they probably formed around the Sun, and are on the way to be expelled. The authors also computed the radiants of the hyperbolic objects, i.e. the direction from where they came, and they found an anisotropic distribution, i.e. there are preferred directions. Such a result has been obtained in comparing the resulting radiants from the ones given by a random process, and the distance between these 2 results is estimated to be statistically significant enough to conclude an anisotropic distribution. So, this result in not based on a pattern detected by the human eye, but on statistical calculations.

In particular, the authors noted an excess of radiants in the direction of the binary star WISE J072003.20-084651.2, also known as Scholz’s star, which is currently considered as the star having had the last closest approach to our Solar System, some 70 kilo years ago. In other words, the objects having a radiant in that direction are probably Solar System objects, and more precisely Oort cloud objects, which are being expelled because of the gravitational kick given by that star.

8 candidate interlopers

So, there is a preferred direction for the radiants, but ‘Oumuamua, which is so eccentric that it is the certain interstellar object, is an outlier in this radiant distribution, i.e. its radiant is not in the direction of Scholz’s star, and so cannot be associated with this process. Moreover, its asymptotical velocity, i.e. when far enough from the Sun, is too large to be bound to the Sun. And this happens for 8 other objects, which the authors identify as candidate interstellar interlopers. These 8 objects are

  • C/1853 RA (Brunhs),
  • C/1997 P2 (Spacewatch),
  • C/1999 U2 (SOHO),
  • C/2002 A3 (LINEAR),
  • C/2008 J4 (McNaught),
  • C/2012 C2 (Bruenjes),
  • C/2012 S1 (ISON),
  • C/2017 D3 (ATLAS).

Do we know just one, or 9 interstellar objects? Or between 1 and 9? Or more than 9? This is actually an important question, because that would constrain the number of detections to be expected in the future, and have implications for planetary formation in our Galaxy. And if these objects are interstellar ones, then we should try to investigate their physical properties (pretty difficult since they are very small and escaping, but we did it for ‘Oumuamua… maybe too late for the 8 other guys).

Anyway, more will be known in the years to come. More visitors from other systems will probably be discovered, and we will also know more on the motion of the stars passing by, thanks to the astrometric satellite Gaia. Stay tuned!

The study and its authors

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *