Weird traveling space boulder could be alien ship, say scientists

Illustration of Oumuamua

Illustration of Oumuamua. Credit European Space Organisation M Kornmesser

According to two Harvard astronomers, the shape could have been a "fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization".

But the object's unusual trajectory, high speed, and puzzling way it is speeding up as it moves through the solar system, have caused researchers to consider other possibilities.

Loeb and his collaborator, Shmuel Bialy, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, acknowledge that the alien spacecraft scenario is an "exotic" idea. But unlike asteroids and other natural, space-faring objects, the Oumuamua appeared to "pick up speed" in a way that wasn't consistent with how scientists understand similar objects to move in space.

Scientists have been confounded by the interstellar object first spotted tumbling past the sun a year ago via telescopes on Maui.

They add in the paper that the object could be a "lightsail of artifical origin". Not only is it the first-ever interstellar asteroid or comet detected by astronomers while passing through the solar system, its shape is odd, its acceleration is unexpected, and a cometary tail - the signature trail of particles seen behind shooting stars - is conspicuous in its absence.

Mr Loeb is an adviser to Breakthrough Starshot, an initiative that plans to send a fleet of tiny laser-powered lightsail craft to the nearest star system.

Astronomers were baffled, eventually settling on the term "interstellar object", the Washington Post reported.

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"A survey for lightsails as technosignatures [scientific evidence of past or present technology] in the solar system is warranted, irrespective of whether Oumuamua is one of them", the paper said.

It "may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization", states a paper by two Harvard scientists to be published November 12 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Oumuamua baffled scientists a year ago due to its unique speed and trajectory: as it passed through our solar system, Oumuamua accelerated.

"So we wrote this paper suggesting this explanation", Loeb told the Boston Globe.

"Not 'where is the lack of evidence so that I can fit in any hypothesis that I like?"

Of course, the pair aren't claiming that Oumuamua's definitely of alien origin. It's also possible Oumuamua was just created to wander through space, collecting information, and our solar system just happened to be in its way - its operators weren't necessarily looking to pry into the lives of humans.

"Why send a spacecraft which is doing this?" he said. Loeb is saying that the Oumuamua doesn't exhibit the type of characteristics seen in other comets and asteroids.

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