FOR RELEASE: 1:00 p.m. (EST) December 12, 2019

PHOTO NO.: STScI-PRC19-61

INTERSTELLAR COMET 2I/BORISOV SWINGS PAST THE SUN

Newswise — These two images, taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, capture comet 2I/Borisov streaking though our solar system and on its way back to interstellar space. It is only the second interstellar object known to have passed through the solar system.

"Hubble gives us the best upper limit of the size of comet Borisov's nucleus, which is the really important part of the comet," said David Jewitt, a UCLA professor of planetary science and astronomy, whose team has captured the best and sharpest look at this first interstellar comet. "Surprisingly, our Hubble images show that its nucleus is more than 15 times smaller than earlier investigations suggested it might be. Our Hubble images show that the radius is smaller than half-a-kilometer. Knowing the size is potentially useful for beginning to estimate how common such objects may be in the solar system and our galaxy. Borisov is the first known interstellar comet, and we would like to learn how many others there are."

Crimean amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov discovered the comet on August 30, 2019 and reported the position measurements to the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working with the Minor Planet Center, computed an orbit for the comet which shows that it came from elsewhere in our Milky Way galaxy, point of origin unknown.

Nevertheless, observations by numerous telescopes show that the comet's chemical composition is similar to the comets found inside our solar system, providing evidence that comets also form around other stars. By the middle of 2020 the comet will have already zoomed past Jupiter's distance of 500 million miles on its way back into the frozen abyss of interstellar space.

[left] November 16, 2019 photo

The comet appears in front of a distant background spiral galaxy (2MASX J10500165-0152029). The galaxy's bright central core is smeared in the image because Hubble was tracking the comet. Comet Borisov was approximately 203 million miles from Earth in this exposure. Its tail of ejected dust streaks off to the upper right. The comet has been artificially colored blue to discriminate fine detail in the halo of dust, or coma, surrounding the central nucleus. It also helps to visually separate the comet from the background galaxy. 

[right] December 9, 2019 photo

Hubble revisited the comet shortly after its closest approach to the Sun where it received maximum heating after spending most of its life in frigid interstellar space. The comet also reached a breathtaking maximum speed of about 100,000 miles per hour. Comet Borisov is 185 million miles from Earth in this photo, near the inner edge of the asteroid belt, but below it. The nucleus, an agglomeration of ices and dust, is still too small to be resolved. The bright central portion is a coma made up of dust leaving the surface. The comet will make its closest approach to Earth in late December at a distance of 180 million miles. 

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)

For image files and more information about the comet and Hubble, visit:

https://hubblesite.org/contents/news-releases/2019/news-2019-61

http://www.nasa.gov/hubble

Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland
410-338-4514
villard@stsci.edu

Stuart Wolpert
UCLA, Los Angeles, California
swolpert@stratcomm.ucla.edu

David Jewitt
UCLA, Los Angeles, California
jewitt@ucla.edu