According to experts, the object, which measures some six kilometers across, is very atypical both in composition and behavior.
Our solar system is busy as countless cosmic objects move around the sun. From time to time, we receive uninvited guests as objects from other star systems swing by. Two such objects made headlines a few years ago as experts followed ‘Oumuamua and 2I/Borisov, both of which are interstellar objects. Now, there seems to be an old (new) interstellar visitor in the neighborhood. According to experts, a comet first spotted in 1996 and called 96P/Macholz 1 is not of this star system. David Macholz first spotted the comet with the help of an amateur telescope in 1986. While most comets that travel toward the sun are less than 10 meters across and eventually burn out as they approach our sun, 96P/Macholz 1 did not.
It measures six kilometers across
The massive object, believed to measure some six kilometers across, is currently being followed by NASA’s SOHO spacecraft and satellites from the European Space Agency as it makes its way toward the orbit of Mercury, leaving behind an icy footprint. This is because the tails of comets are made of gas as the material on the surface is heated by solar radiation. But what made experts believe this comet is not from around here? In 2008, scientists analyzed the material left behind by hundreds of comets and discovered peculiar characteristics when they looked at 96P/Macholz 1. They found that this particular space rock contained less than 1.5% of expected levels of the chemical cyanogen and was also relatively low in carbon. This isn’t what comets from our solar system usually look like.
96P/Macholz 1 is a strange rock
— Ron Murphy (@isixtyfive) January 31, 2023
These odd characteristics led experts to suggest that the comet was an interstellar visitor formed in a faraway star system. As the object moves toward our sun, scientists can learn more about it as solar radiation continues heating it. And while astronomers patiently wait for more data on the space rock, and astrophotographers hope for clear skies to photograph it, experts confirm it is a very atypical object, both in composition and behavior. According to Karl Battams, an astronomer at the Naval Research Laboratory, this means we never know what exactly we might see from it. But, speaking to spaceweather.com, he revealed, “hopefully, we can get some beautiful science out of this and share it with everyone as soon as we can.”
More than two-thirds the height of Mount Everest
And we will likely have a good chance of learning more about the object, thanks to its size. 96P/Macholz 1 is more than two-thirds the height of Mount Everest, which means it is pretty well protected from evaporating as it approaches our scorching sun. The closest approach to the sun was recorded on January 31, when the object traveled three times closer to our star than the planet Mercury. 96P/Macholz 1 was likely expelled from its native solar system by the gravitational interaction of a massive planet. It is also probable that Jupiter played an important role in welcoming it to our solar system, changing its orbit, and making it stay here, at least for a while.
Its origins are shrouded in mystery
Although the comet is likely interstellar in nature, there is a small chance that the object isn’t a strange alien rock but a weird member of our star system, forming in little-known, distant regions of our star system. Whatever the case, scientists will learn a lot from it, and astrophotographers who are lucky enough will get to take photographs of it as it makes its way around the sun.