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An artist's illustration of the first interstellar asteroid, `Oumuamua. Credit: European Southern Observatory.

Astronomers today confirmed that an asteroid first spotted zipping through our solar system last month came from another star system. 'Oumuamua — Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first" — is one of the most elongated cosmic objects known to date.

Why it matters: 'Oumuamua's bizarre shape is unlike any other asteroid seen yet, and could "provide new clues regarding into how other solar systems formed," according to a NASA press release.

'Oumuamua's distinguishing characteristics, detailed by a team of astronomers led by Karen Meech from the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii, and published Monday in the journal Nature:

  • 'Oumuamua's orbit isn't possible in our solar system, the researchers concluded, meaning it came from another solar system.
  • The cigar-shaped asteroid is dark and reddish, and is about ten times long as it is wide.
  • Unlike comets, it doesn't have any gas or dust surrounding it. But it is similar to some comets and asteroids. "This is important because it suggests that planetary compositions like ours could be typical across the Galaxy," Stuart Clark writes in the Guardian.
  • According to NASA, these properties "suggest that 'Oumuamua is dense, comprised of rock and possibly metals, has no water or ice, and that its surface was reddened due to the effects of irradiation from cosmic rays over hundreds of millions of years."

Timeline:

  • The object was first discovered Oct. 19 by the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS1 telescope. Soon after, telescopes around the globe, including the European Southern Observatory's s Very Large Telescope in Chile, began measuring the asteroid's characteristics.
  • The asteroid can still be seen by large ground-based telescopes, but it is rapidly fading from view as it travels away from Earth. It is expected to no longer be detectable around mid-December.

Go deeper

4 hours ago - World

Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Scoop: Biden weighs retired General Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.

Updated 6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: WHO: AstraZeneca vaccine must be evaluated on "more than a press release."
  2. Politics: Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York COVID restrictions.
  3. World: Thailand, Philippines sign deal with AstraZeneca for vaccine.
  4. Economy: Safety nets to disappear in December Black Friday shopping across the U.S., in photosAmazon hires 1,400 workers a day throughout pandemic.
  5. Education: National standardized tests delayed until 2022.