The National Digest

Interstellar Comet: Here’s Why It’s Got Scientists So Pumped Up

Karen Meech wouldn’t credit Comet C/2019 Q4 with good timing. But when an astronomer has a chance to study the first known interstellar comet, by golly they take it, unfinished paper for a major conference aside.

Meech is just one of the astronomers who has rushed to ask for time using instruments on Earth and in its orbit to study a major cosmic celebrity: a bright, fuzzy dot in the sky that she and her colleagues are confident is the first interstellar comet known to scientists and just the second interstellar object at all, following 2017’s blockbuster discovery of a strange space rock eventually named ‘Oumuamua. But to Meech, this new discovery is perhaps a more exciting opportunity.

“This one is spectacular compared to the first one, where we had effectively a week to observe it,” Meech told The astronomer at the University of Hawaii, who made critical observations of ‘Oumuamua, said, “So you had to write your proposals, observe it, get the observations down, reduce the data, and we managed to pull together a paper in a week. But this one, we have the luxury of lots of time.”

For C/2019 Q4, the clock started early in the morning of Aug. 30, when a Crimean astronomer named Gennady Borisov trained a small telescope near the horizon, closer to the sun than many scientific instruments can point.


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