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Comet 2I/Borisov. Photo: Gemini Observatory/NSF/AURA

The interstellar comet discovered in August looks very similar to comets originating in our own solar system, according to a new study in Nature Astronomy this week.

The big picture: Comet 2I/Borisov represents just the second-known interstellar object to make its way through our solar system, and it's astronomers' best chance so far to study a piece of a distant star system at close range.

  • Even if it does turn out that the comet is just like those native to our solar system, it will show astronomers that other planetary systems light-years from our own likely formed in similar ways.

What they found: Unlike the strange cigar shape of the first interstellar object — named 'Oumuamua and seen in 2017 — 2I/Borisov has a pronounced dust tail and a reddish color that can be compared to other comets, according to the study.

  • "In combination with what we have learned from peculiar `Oumuamua, it tells us that there may be a lot of diversity in other planetary systems and the formation of minor bodies," Piotr Guzik, one of the authors of the new study, told Axios via email.
  • The team began its observations of the comet on Sept. 10, using the Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii and the William Herschel Telescope in Spain.
"This is a quick first look at the object and is showing what everyone has seen who has been observing this."
— University of Hawaii astronomer Karen Meech, who did not take part in the study, told Axios via email

What to watch: Astronomers will be keeping a close eye on 2I/Borisov as long as it's visible from Earth.

  • An earlier study submitted to The Astrophysical Journal Letters found cyanogen, a common molecule in solar system comets, in 2I/Borisov's atmosphere.
  • However, the comet still isn't in the perfect position to be able to get a good look at its chemical signature yet.
  • As the object gets closer — with its closest flyby of the Sun expected in early December — scientists should be able to piece together the chemical makeup of the comet's atmosphere and figure out just how familiar or alien it really is.

Go deeper

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

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  2. Politics: Biden readies massive shifts in policy for his first days in office.
  3. Vaccine: Fauci: 100 million doses in 100 days is "absolutely" doable.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode again.
  5. Tech: Kids' screen time sees a big increase.
  6. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.
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Alexey Navalny detained after landing back in Moscow

Navalny and his wife shortly before he was detained. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was detained upon his return to Moscow on Sunday, which came five months after he was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. He returned despite being warned that he would be arrested.

The latest: Navalny was stopped at a customs checkpoint and led away alone by officers. He appeared to hug his wife goodbye, and his spokesman reports that his lawyer was not allowed to accompany him.

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Biden's "overwhelming force" doctrine

President-elect Biden arrives to introduce his science team in Wilmington yesterday. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

President-elect Biden has ordered up a shock-and-awe campaign for his first days in office to signal, as dramatically as possible, the radical shift coming to America and global affairs, his advisers tell us. 

The plan, Part 1 ... Biden, as detailed in a "First Ten Days" memo from incoming chief of staff Ron Klain, plans to unleash executive orders, federal powers and speeches to shift to a stark, national plan for "100 million shots" in three months.