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Harvard Scientists Have Debunked The Notion That 'Oumuamua Was A Nitrogen Iceberg

By: April Carson

The strange intruder known as 'Oumuamua continues to defy explanation.

The first-known interstellar object in our solar system, known as 'Oumuamua, continues to baffle scientists. Now, one of the latest ideas for what the cigar-shaped intruder is composed of — a "nitrogen iceberg" - has also been debunked.

In a recent attempt to characterize 'Oumuamua, scientists called it a nitrogen iceberg. According to Harvard astrophysicists, however, this is nonsense, and their explanation has been published in the latest issue of New Astronomy.

When seen for the first time in October 2017, 'Oumuamua was moving through our solar system at nearly 57,000 mph (92,000 km/h), far too fast to have come from our solar system.

As the strange, flat object tumbled end-over-end and accelerated, it defied explanation due to the sun's gravitational pull. And there was no indication of a propellant like water vapor or gases escaping the item and propelling it ahead, as astronomers were unable to discover any obvious evidence of one.

Scientists are unsure what caused 'Oumuamua to slingshot through our solar system, and they don't know what it's composed of.

In March, Arizona State University astrophysicists Alan Jackson and Steven Desch said they had solved the mystery. According to Live Science , the team published two papers in which they revealed that "Oumuamua" was most likely a chunk of nitrogen ice that flew off a Pluto-like planet somewhere outside our solar system.

The assumption would address the perplexing propulsion issue, since as 'Oumuamua came closer to the sun, it would have been propelled by evaporation of nitrogen gas and been undetectable with telescopes.

And because astronomers have discovered nitrogen ice on Pluto, it's not implausible that exo-Plutos may split away from their orbits and become interstellar visitors.(See picture of 'Oumuamua, the first interstellar asteroid discovered in our solar system.)

Why it might not be nitrogen

However, not everyone accepts this conclusion.

"I instantly recognized that there was no physical way for it to work after I saw those papers. And not even the scope for an error, let alone a margin," Harvard University's Amir Siraj said of the error budget for such a prediction.

According to Siraj and his co-author, Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb, Jackon and Desch's conclusion that 'Oumuamua is a nitrogen iceberg is incorrect because there isn't enough nitrogen in the universe to create something like 'Oumuamua, which is between 1,300 and 2,600 feet long.

Nitrogen is highly rare, according to Siraj, and it has only been found on Pluto, where it makes up about 0.5 percent of the overall mass. Even if every ice-covered planet like Pluto that is predicted to exist was scraped clean, there would still not be enough nitrogen to build 'Oumuamua.

The mass of exo-Plutos required to create a nitrogen iceberg the size of 'Oumuamua would exceed the mass of stars, requiring — at a bare minimum — more than 60 times the amount of matter per star needed to form all the planets in our solar system, according to Siraj and Loeb. "But that's crazy," Siraj said. "It's preposterous."

In their calculations, Siraj said that Loeb and Siraj made a number of conservative assumptions, such as ignoring the impact of cosmic rays, subatomic particles that fly through space at the speed of light and degrade everything they strike, including items like Oumuamua. When cosmic rays are included, Siraj estimated that all of the exo-Plutos in the galaxy would require 1,000 times the combined mass of all stars.

However, the researchers said their careful calculation of the number of nitrogen fragments flying through space is not an underestimate, and it is in line with previous research predicting how many 'Oumuamua-like things exist in space.

"Siraj and Loeb found that we did not make a mistake, therefore they should have accepted the figures we submitted," Desch said. "Instead, they attempted to do their own back-of-the-envelope calculation and made a lot of approximations and estimates, resulting in various figures that they suggest are unfavorable."

When estimating the number of items based on a single observation, as is the case with 'Oumuamua, a large margin of error is necessary, according to Jackson.

According to Dr. Ishihara, the scientists from Keio argued that because they used a very large estimate for the number of 'Oumuamua-like objects in space, they needed a enormous quantity of mass to create them.

"They're trying to create a fuss when there isn't one," Desch added.

But Siraj believes that the mystery of 'Oumuamua has not been fully unraveled. Some researchers may be eager to jump to conclusions about 'Oumuamua, he added, because as long as it's a mystery, the notion of artificial origin is still on the table. "If it's still a mystery, you should consider all possibilities."

That's what makes 'Oumuamua so fascinating, according to Brown. "I don't care what it is since every potential thing is a new astrophysical object we've never seen before, which is why it's exciting," he added.

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav







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