A recent visitor to the Solar System – a space rock called 'Oumuamua' – could be covered with a thick layer of organic material, an outer layer that protects the inner storage of ice. This glaze might have acted like a shield, preventing ice inside the Oumuamue to overheat and evaporate as the rock passed near our Sun. This means that this interstellar object is more like an ice comet than an asteroid.
The main difference between asteroids and comets is their composition: the comets are made up of ice and rock blends, and the asteroids are mostly rock and metal without much water. Astronomers think that most of the objects that pass between the stars – what is called interstellar space – are more like comets than asteroids. When our planetary system emerged, larger planets probably pushed trillions of small objects from the system edge into the interstellar space. Most distant objects in the Solar System are ice bodies, and astronomers assume that other planetary systems have also thrown mostly glacial rocks.
That is why astronomers initially thought that Oumuamua was a comet when they realized it was not from our cosmic neighborhood. But further observations of 'Oumuamue have shown that the body does not act as a comet. Comets usually accompany tails of gas and dust caused by evaporation of icy material from the rock. Astronomers found no trace of comet tail around 'Oumuamue, so the rock is reclassified as an asteroid. Now, a new analysis of this interstellar visitor explains that an object could be a comet although it does not act like this. "We found that although this object went very close to our Sun – closer to Mercury – such a bark could isolate the interior," said Alan Fitzsimmons, head of study at The Verge .
Fitzsimmons and his team think that 'Oumuamua could have been covered with ice a long time ago, but it was transformed after hundreds of millions of years traveled through the deep universe. During his cosmic wandering, the object was under the constant bombing of cosmic air – high-energy particles released into the universe when the stars exploded. These rays might have worn out the outer layer of ice, and over time, a layer of organic material thicker than 30 centimeters was created. "Our data is consistent with the fact that this facility is very, very long," Fitzsimmons said.
To discover this outer layer, researchers reviewed the data collected by two telescopes – one in the Canary Islands and others in Chile – on October 25 and 26, 2017. These observatories measured how much the Sunlight reflects on the surface of 'Oumuamue while passing through the Sun's system, then shattering light into its constituent colors. Scientists did not find any signatures of minerals that would form these rocky objects. There were no signatures of ice.
Instead, they found that the rock surface composition varies from place to place, but ultimately, the rock has shown the signatures of rich carbon compounds on its surface – materials that are often associated with life here on Earth. This does not mean that 'Oumuamua hosts life, but reminds of small objects like comets from our solar system that are also covered with ice carbon. Laboratory findings also show that ice structures that travel for a long time through a deep universe look a bit like this cosmic rocks. "This is what we expect from something that once had an ice surface, and then long been exposed to high-energy radiation," Fritzsimmons said.
Of course, we still have a lot to learn about 'Oumuamui. But further observations are no longer an option: the facility is small and is currently away from Earth, which makes it incredibly difficult to see. Astronomers, however, can continue to study the collected data so far and see if they can detect more detail
One thing that most astronomers agree is that the object is definitely not an artifact craft from a distant star system. Last week, the Breakthrough Listen research program conducted a campaign to find out if there were artificial communication signals coming from 'Oumuamue. The first results confirmed that the visitor is most likely just rock – but now we know he could have a thick carbon fiber coat.
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