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Newly Discovered Comet Is Likely Interstellar Visitor

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A
newly discovered comet has excited the astronomical community this week because
it appears to have originated from outside the solar system. The object -
designated C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) – was discovered on Aug. 30, 2019, by Gennady Borisov at the MARGO
observatory in Nauchnij, Crimea. The official confirmation that comet C/2019 Q4
is an interstellar comet has not yet been made, but if it is interstellar, it
would be only the second such object detected. The first, ‘Oumuamua, was observed and confirmed
in October 2017.

The
new comet, C/2019 Q4, is still inbound toward the Sun, but it will remain
farther than the orbit of Mars and will approach no closer to Earth than about
190 million miles (300 million kilometers).

After
the initial detections of the comet, Scout
system
,
which is located at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, automatically
flagged the object as possibly being interstellar. Davide Farnocchia of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at JPL worked with
astronomers and the European Space Agency’s Near-Earth Object Coordination
Center in Frascati, Italy, to obtain additional observations. He then worked
with the NASA-sponsored Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to estimate
the comet’s precise trajectory and determine whether it originated within our
solar system or came from elsewhere in the galaxy.

The
comet is currently 260 million miles (420 million kilometers) from the Sun and will
reach its closest point, or perihelion, on Dec. 8, 2019, at a distance of about
190 million miles (300 million kilometers).

“The
comet’s current velocity is high, about 93,000 mph [150,000 kph], which is well
above the typical velocities of objects orbiting the Sun at that distance,”
said Farnocchia. “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.”



Currently on an inbound trajectory, comet C/2019 Q4 is heading toward the inner solar system. On Oct. 26, it will pass through the ecliptic plane – the plane in which Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun – from above at roughly a 40-degree angle.

C/2019
Q4 was established as being cometary due to its fuzzy appearance, which
indicates that the object has a central icy body that is producing a
surrounding cloud of dust and particles as it approaches the Sun and heats up.
Its location in the sky (as seen from Earth) places it near the Sun – an area
of sky not usually scanned by the large ground-based asteroid surveys or NASA’s
asteroid-hunting NEOWISE spacecraft.

C/2019
Q4 can be seen with professional telescopes for months to come. “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.”

Observations completed
by Karen Meech and her team at the University of Hawaii indicate the comet nucleus
is somewhere between 1.2 and 10 miles (2 and 16 kilometers) in diameter. Astronomers
will continue collect observations to further characterize the comet’s physical
properties (size, rotation, etc.) and also continue to better identify its
trajectory.

The Minor
Planet Center

is hosted by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and is a sub-node
of NASA’s Planetary Data System Small Bodies Node at the University of Maryland.
JPL hosts the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies. All are projects of NASA’s
Near-Earth Object Observations Program and elements of the agency’s Planetary
Defense Coordination Office within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

More information about
asteroids and near-Earth objects can be found at:

https://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov

https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/asteroidwatch

For more information about
NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/planetarydefense

For
asteroid and comet news and updates, follow AsteroidWatch on Twitter:

twitter.com/AsteroidWatch

News Media Contact

DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-393-9011
[email protected]

?
Alana Johnson

NASA Headquarters, Washington

202-672-4780

[email protected]

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