Interstellar Visitor ‘Oumuamua Was Shaped By Cosmic Particles
“We think of space as being an empty place, but the truth is that there are dust grains, particles, neutral atoms, ions, and cosmic rays zipping through the entirety of the galaxy, even when there are no stars. As an object moves through space, circling the galaxy at hundreds of kilometers per second (and moving relative to most other objects at tens of kilometers per second), it’s constantly bombarded by large numbers of small, fast-moving bits of matter. Just as water and sand will smooth out and erode pebbles and cobbles in the ocean here on our world, the cosmic equivalent — the interstellar medium — will have the same effect over extremely long timescales on ejected icy bodies.”
When scientists discovered ‘Oumuamua last year, they were surprised to find that it not only originated from outside our Solar System, but possessed bizarre properties we had never seen before. It was extremely elongated, tumbled irregularly, and had a never-before-seen composition: a carbon crust over an icy interior. Despite heating up to 550 °F (290
°C), it never developed a tail, a coma, or showed any ejecta. Many have proposed exotic or recent origins for this interstellar interloper, but in this case, simplicity rules: it may just be a cosmic pebble in the galactic sea. The interstellar medium is full of particles, and ‘Oumuamua, like most interstellar objects, should move at about 0.01% the speed of light through the galaxy. Over time, it should be worn down in exactly the fashion we see. As we discover more objects with an origin beyond our Solar System, we fully expect they’ll appear quite similar to this one.