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Comet C/2019 Q4 seen on September 10. Photo: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope

Astronomers think they've found an interstellar comet on its way through our solar system.

Why it matters: If confirmed, this will be only the second interstellar object on a track through the solar system found by scientists, and it could help researchers learn more about how star systems beyond our own form.

Where it stands: This comet — called Comet C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) — was first seen by amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov on Aug. 30, and it's expected to come within about 190 million miles of the Sun in December, according to NASA.

  • Scientists around the world will now likely start observing the comet to nail down its orbit and learn all they can about the newfound object.
  • "Absent an unexpected fading or disintegration, this object should be observable
    for at least a year," the Minor Planet Center wrote in a circular.
  • NASA expects that the comet will enter the inner solar system on Oct. 26, when it flies in from above, crossing the plane where the planets orbit the Sun.
  • At the moment, measurements suggest that the comet is between 1.2 and 10 miles across, NASA said, but further observations could refine that estimate.
Gif: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Background: The first interstellar object spotted by scientists came through the solar system in 2017.

  • Named 'Oumuamua, the object was found by the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS1 telescope while it was on its way out of the solar system.
  • Unlike 'Oumuamua, scientists will have plenty of time to study C/2019 Q4 over the coming months as it makes its way toward the Sun.
  • "This gives us precious opportunity to look at things from another solar system up close, it will help us to understand the formation and evolution of planetary systems in general, including our own solar system," Quanzhi Ye, of the University of Maryland, told Axios via email.

The big picture: Astronomers think interstellar objects like these could have been ejected from their own solar systems through interactions with planets or other objects.

  • According to NASA, an object like 'Oumuamua likely passes through the inner solar system once per year.

What's next: In the coming weeks and months, scientists will try to learn more about the comet, figuring out its size and trajectory, and possibly even examining the light emitted by its atmosphere to learn what it might be made of.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include new information from NASA.

Go deeper

Updated 34 mins ago - World

North Korea claims latest missile test new weapon launched from submarine

North Korean state media claims the country's military fired this missile on Tuesday. Photo: Korean Central News Agency

North Korean state media announced that a detected ballistic missile launch off its east coast on Tuesday was a newly developed weapon test-fired from a submarine.

Why it matters: Pyongyang's latest in a series of recent missile launches into the sea happened hours after U.S. officials emphasized their commitment to restart negotiations on North Korea's nuclear weapons program, which have stalled since talks broke down during the Trump administration, AP notes.

3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Manchin's massive means test

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is offering progressives a trade: He'll vote for their cherished social programs if they accept strict income caps for the recipients, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: Manchin’s plan to use so-called means-testing for everything from paid family medical leave to elder and disabled care would drastically shrink the size and scope of the programs. It also would bring a key moderate vote to the progressive cause.

The China whisperer

Nick Burns. Photo: Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images

President Biden's nominee for ambassador to China will face aggressive questioning Wednesday about the most important, and potentially perilous, bilateral relationship in the world.

Why it matters: While Nick Burns is an experienced diplomat with support on both sides of the aisle, lawmakers want to use his confirmation hearing to force the administration into some tough positions on China.