Feature Story | 10-Aug-2023

Visitors from distant stars: Rubin Observatory will detect an abundance of interstellar objects careening through our solar system

Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time will revolutionize Solar System science by revealing a population of previously undiscovered interstellar comets and asteroids passing through our cosmic neighborhood

Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA)

We’ve learned a lot about the biggest, brightest objects in our Solar System using existing instruments and telescopes. However, astronomers like Michele Bannister, Rutherford Discovery Fellow at the University of Canterbury in Aotearoa New Zealand and member of the Rubin Observatory/LSST Solar System Science Collaboration, want to search deeper, for small, faint bodies that originated in planetary systems far beyond our own. These interstellar objects — which were flung from their home systems into the space between stars — are so faint that they have been virtually undetectable. But with the upcoming Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST), conducted with Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, scientists are expecting an explosive period of discovery as these faint objects come into view for the first time.

Rubin Observatory is jointly funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Department of Energy (DOE). Rubin is a Program of NSF’s NOIRLab, which, along with SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, will operate Rubin.

The origins of our Solar System lay in a massive swirling cloud of gas and dust that collapsed to form new stars, one of which was our Sun. The stars gobbled up most of the cosmic ingredients, but around each star the remainder formed the small building blocks of planets — called planetesimals — ranging from tens of meters to a few kilometers in size. Some of these coalesced into planets and their moons and rings, but trillions of leftover planetesimals continued to orbit their host stars. 

With the aid of observations of our Solar System and computer simulations, scientists speculate that the gravity of larger planets and passing nearby stars often launches most of these remnant planetesimals away from their home systems and out into their galaxies. Traveling through space and not bound to any star, they’re now known as interstellar objects.

Planetary systems are a place of change and growth, of sculpting and reshaping,” said Bannister. “And planets are like active correspondents in that they can move trillions of little tiny planetesimals out into galactic space.”

If planets are the correspondents, interstellar objects are the telegrams containing valuable information about distant planetary systems and how they formed. And for a short time, some of these messages from afar are right in our cosmic backyard. “A rock from another solar system is a direct probe of how planetesimal formation took place at another star,” said Bannister, “so to actually have them come to us is pretty neat.

Though astronomers think many interstellar objects exist, and likely pass through our Solar System on a regular basis, only two have been confirmed: ʻOumuamua in 2017 (also known as 1I/2017 U1), and the comet 2I/Borisov in 2019. These were discovered thanks to great timing, a lot of effort, and a little luck — these small, faint interstellar travelers are only visible when they’re close enough to see, and when our telescopes are pointing in the right place at the right time. 

We calculate that there are a whole lot of these little worlds in our Solar System right now,” said Bannister. “We just can't find them yet because we aren’t seeing faint enough.” 

Rubin Observatory will change that. Using an 8.4-meter telescope equipped with the highest resolution digital camera in the world, Rubin will detect fainter interstellar objects than we’ve ever seen before. “It’s as though you suddenly go from being on a little boat bobbing around in the beautiful shallows just off the shore, to now you’re out over the big deep ocean and you can see into all that expanse for the first time,” said Bannister.

Additionally, Rubin's fast-moving telescope can scan the entire visible sky every few nights, capturing a timelapse view of interstellar objects on their fast journeys through our Solar System.

While we call both ‘Omuamua and 2I/Borisov interstellar objects, they differ in just about every way we can measure. What will the third, or the twentieth, interstellar object look like? Within the first year of Rubin Observatory’s 10-year LSST, scheduled to begin in 2025, scientists expect to get a good idea. “We’re going to go from a study of two individual objects to a population study of at least dozens,” Bannister said. As interstellar objects could come from stars all across the Milky Way, this increase will allow scientists to directly study how planetary systems form at distant stars throughout our galaxy’s history — including at ancient stars that no longer exist.

For now, scientists can only make loose predictions of how many interstellar objects Rubin will reveal. Bannister playfully places her bet on 21, but says we really have no idea yet. Whatever the outcome, Rubin is poised to revolutionize Solar System studies — along with many other areas of astronomy and astrophysics. “It’s going to be one of the gifts that Rubin provides,” she said, “a new history of the Solar System and a greater understanding of where we come from.”

More information

Rubin Observatory is a joint initiative of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE). Its primary mission is to carry out the Legacy Survey of Space and Time, providing an unprecedented data set for scientific research supported by both agencies. Rubin is operated jointly by NSF’s NOIRLab and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC). NOIRLab is managed for NSF by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and SLAC is operated for DOE by Stanford University. Additional contributions from a number of international organizations and teams are acknowledged.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 to promote the progress of science. NSF supports basic research and people to create knowledge that transforms the future.

SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

NSF’s NOIRLab (National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory), the US center for ground-based optical-infrared astronomy, operates the international Gemini Observatory (a facility of NSFNRC–CanadaANID–ChileMCTIC–BrazilMINCyT–Argentina, and KASI–Republic of Korea), Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO), Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO), the Community Science and Data Center (CSDC), and Vera C. Rubin Observatory (in cooperation with DOE’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory). It is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with NSF and is headquartered in Tucson, Arizona. The astronomical community is honored to have the opportunity to conduct astronomical research on Iolkam Du’ag (Kitt Peak) in Arizona, on Maunakea in Hawai‘i, and on Cerro Tololo and Cerro Pachón in Chile. We recognize and acknowledge the very significant cultural role and reverence that these sites have to the Tohono O’odham Nation, to the Native Hawaiian community, and to the local communities in Chile, respectively.


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