A rare object entered our solar system last month and now astronomers have confirmed it is the second interstellar comet ever detected. It was given the name “2I/Borisov” on Tuesday, but researchers have no idea where it came from.
On August 30, Ukrainian amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov discovered the object from the MARGO observatory in Crimea, temporarily naming it C/2019 Q4. The comet was discovered with a 0.65-meter telescope, built by Borisov himself.
Amateur and professional astronomers all over the world helped the IAU confirm details about the object. Observations from the group revealed it has an extremely hyperbolic orbit — meaning it is moving too fast to orbit the sun — confirming its origin as interstellar.
“The orbit is now sufficiently well known and the object is unambiguously interstellar in origin; it has received its final designation as the second interstellar object, 2I,” the IAU said in a press release Tuesday. “In this case, the IAU has decided to follow the tradition of naming cometary objects after their discoverers, so the object has been named 2I/Borisov.”
Its visibly short tail and “fuzzy” appearance confirm the object’s status as a comet. Astronomers at the University of Hawaii estimate it to be between 1.2 and 10 miles across and will be closest to the sun on December 7.
“The comet’s current velocity is high, about 93,000 mph, which is well above the typical velocities of objects orbiting the Sun at that distance,” said Davide Farnocchia from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The high velocity indicates not only that the object likely originated from outside our solar system, but also that it will leave and head back to interstellar space.”
The comet is still headed towards Earth, but we don’t need to worry about it colliding — it won’t get any closer than 190 million miles, according to NASA’s JPL. Scientists will spend the next few months studying the comet before it returns to the vastness of space.
“The object will peak in brightness in mid-December and continue to be observable with moderate-size telescopes until April 2020,” said Farnocchia. “After that, it will only be observable with larger professional telescopes through October 2020.”
Astronomers weren’t given that necessary time to study the first-ever interstellar object, 1I/’Oumuamua, when it was discovered leaving our solar system in 2017. Now both amateur and professional astronomers hope to further pinpoint the size, rotation and trajectory of 2I/Borisov before it’s gone forever.