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Interstellar Comet Borisov May Bear the Gift of Alien Water

Poor ‘Oumuamua. The first known interstellar visitor was the belle of the cosmic ball for a few years – admired for its cigar shape, envied for its long travels, alluring with its mysterious looks that led even the most skeptical to wonder if it might possibly be a spaceship. Today, it’s “Ouma who?” The new star of the stellar show is Borisov – the second known interstellar comet, whose name is easier to remember, large size is hard to ignore and early arrival makes it the center of astronomers’ attention. While Borisov has already garnered “it’s a spaceship” speculation, conventional scientists are hailing it for a better and much more revolutionary reason – Borisov has shown evidence it’s carrying alien water from another solar system! Break out the bubbly or your last can of alien beer from storming Area 51 and let’s toast!

This is a time-lapse sequence compressing Hubble Space Telescope observations of comet 2I/Borisov, spanning a seven-hour period. Credits: NASA, ESA and J. DePasquale (STScI)

“Using a simple sublimation model, we find an H2O active area of 1.7 km2, which for current constraints on the nucleus size could imply active fractions from as low as 1% to > 100% (implying a hyperactive nucleus), though these active fractions are highly model dependent. More measurements are needed as Borisov approaches perihelion to fully understand its composition and activity.”

Blah, blah, blah … H2O! The discoverers of water on Borisov have already generated a paper on the subject. Adam McKay and a team of scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center used an instrument at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico to study light reflected by Borisov. Studying the vapor spewing off the comet, the instrument detected hydrogen and oxygen – the results of sunlight breaking down water (H2O). The measurements show Borisov is producing up to 19 kilograms of water per second. That’s 42 pounds per second. Even pro wrestlers don’t sweat that much. Alan Fitzsimmons at Queen’s University Belfast, told New Scientist he’s hopeful.

“This would be the first package of water from another planetary system.”

This illustration shows the path of Comet 2I/Borisov through our solar system. NASA / ESA / J. Olmsted & F. Summers (STScI)

Or maybe not. The oxygen detected could also be coming from a breakdown of carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, although so far it looks like the result of water vapor. McKay and most members of the scientific community would rather it be water. That would mean other solar systems have the potential for life forms similar to Earth’s. Or perhaps it lends credence to panspermia and the theory that life travelled through space rather than sprouted on individual planets.

“Are we special as a planetary system or are a lot of planetary systems like ours? That has implications for the origin of life, and how common life is throughout the universe.”

Sorry, ‘Oumuamua. We’re infatuated with Borisov now.

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Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
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