The fascinating discovery of a distant asteroid reveals the history of the solar system


The 2004 EW95 orbits 4 billion kilometers from Earth. (Illustration: ESO / M. Kornmesser)

The discovery of an exiled asteroid on the outskirts of the solar system sheds new light on the formation of the latter.

Scientists from the United Kingdom, Chile, the United States and Germany used telescopes from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) to study a spatial “relic” that constitutes the first test of theories about how the first days of the solar system were , according to a report on Wednesday. institution in a statement.

This type of object that had not been seen before so “reliably” is a carbon-rich asteroid. Known as type C asteroids , they are usually formed in the vicinity of the Sun.

However, the 2004 EW95, as it was named in particular, was found in the Kuiper belt, a strip that extends from Neptune’s orbit into interstellar space.

But its composition suggests that this asteroid 300 kilometers wide was not formed in the belt, where most bodies have a surface composed mostly of ice because of its distance from the Sun.

“The first time we looked at the data, we thought we were wrong,” said Tom Seccull of Queen’s University Belfast, one of the researchers who participated in the study. “It did not look anything like other objects in the Kuiper belt.”

In addition to coal, the asteroid also contains minerals known as phyllosilicates, which include clay and talc.

Ice debris
Copyright of the SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY image
Image caption Most objects in the Kuiper Belt are rich in ice. (Illustration: ESO / M. Kornmesser)

Theoretical models on the first stage of the solar system, in particular the one known as “the great turn”, predict that the gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, were formed in it and that they behaved so violently that they approached move away from him to his current position.

In their wake, they would have scattered some of the first bodies that formed between them, expelling them to the outside of the solar system , where they still remain.

This model also suggests that many of these expelled elements reached the cold Kuiper belt and that they are still there. Among them, type C asteroids

But until now there was no solid evidence that this has happened.

A turbulent time

Seccull explained to the BBC that the characteristics of the 2004 EW95 are “in asteroids whose rocks have been altered by the presence of liquid water.”

“Since it is so far from the Sun, where the temperature is around -235C, all the water on its surface will be frozen,” he said. “This implies that at a certain moment it was heated and could have formed closer to the Sun.”

The asteroid, then, could have been ejected from one of the orbits between the giant planets during the turbulent years of the solar system.

Illustration with the orbits of the planets around the sun and the asteroid
Image caption The asteroid’s orbit (in red) is quite eccentric, suggesting that it has been altered. (Illustration: ESO / M. Kornmesser)

Rhian Jone, a researcher at the University of Manchester was not involved in the study, told the BBC that this discovery “provides the first good evidence that there are phyllosilicates in a Kuiper belt object.”

The 2004 EW95 is so far away that scientists took several years to analyze it .

Seccull claimed that there are more objects in the Kuiper belt that appear to be similar to this asteroid, but that it is difficult to obtain such detailed information from them.

“Actually, this was in the abyss of what it was possible to observe, it’s big for an asteroid but small for an observable Kuiper belt object.”

It is planned that the mission of the Nasa New Horizons will be on January 1, 2019 with the 2014 MU69 belt object, known as Ultima Thule. The mission is expected to reveal more details about the bodies that make up this region of the outer part of the solar system.

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