Alien hunters think that ‘Oumuamua, the first known interstellar asteroid to venture into our solar system, may be a probe sent by intelligent extraterrestrial life.
Artisti's concept of 'Oumuamua [Photo by ESO/M. Kornmesser]
The asteroid ‘Oumuamua, officially designated as 1I/2017 U1, was spotted on October 19 of this year with the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii, 40 days after its closest encounter with the sun. It was first thought to be a comet, then an asteroid, before it was discovered to be our first interstellar visitor. Scientists have been keeping track of the asteroid since its discovery and identification as our first known visitor from beyond our solar system.
‘Oumuamua, as an interstellar asteroid, is remarkable and groundbreaking enough as it is. However, it’s now thought that the asteroid may be more than just a piece of driftwood from interstellar space. It may actually be a probe sent by extraterrestrial intelligence, and it may still be sending signals to its origin.
Video by Florian Freistetter
The asteroid’s strange shape is one of the biggest things that drew the attention of scientists. It’s elongated and looks like a cigar, being about 800 meters long and only 80 meters wide. Not a lot of known objects in outer space look like this asteroid, leading to a lot of piqued interest in the scientific community. Harvard University astronomer Avi Loeb says that the asteroid looks eerily like his designs for a probe with Breakthrough Listen, a project intent on sending a probe to Alpha Centauri.
"We were thinking about a needle-shaped configuration for this spacecraft so it minimizes interstellar friction, for example," Loeb said. Scientists have also thought that the asteroid’s shape and solid composition made it seem tailor-made for a long flight through space.
‘Oumuamua also seemed like it was dropped into our solar system from high up in interstellar space, picking up more speed as it looped around the sun before zooming away. It’s now on its way to Jupiter, quickly soaring away from the view of our telescopes. Astronomers also say that ‘Oumuamua never sprouted a tail after its close encounter with the sun, indicating that it’s likely not an icy bit of rock from a neighboring star system.
The asteroid’s strange characteristics and possible ties to extraterrestrial life have of course caught the attention of SETI’s (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) professional practitioners. These practitioners think that if ‘Oumuamua is indeed an artificial creation by extraterrestrial intelligence, it should be leaking signals and radio waves, or even actively transmitting them.
Composite image of 'Oumuamua, seen through a telescope [Photo by ESO/K. Meech et al.]
Of course, there’s also compelling evidence that ‘Oumuamua may just be exactly what it looks like—a weirdly shaped piece of space debris. For one thing, astronomers say that the asteroid doesn’t spin quickly enough to create functional gravity for anything that’s inside it. Its trajectory also seems to be entirely influenced by the sun’s gravitational force, which means that rocketry or anything similar doesn’t seem to be influencing its trajectory.
While there’s an albeit small possibility that ‘Oumuamua is an artificial craft built by extraterrestrial intelligence, it’s probably something that occurred naturally. However, this would mean that there are more asteroids out there like ‘Oumuamua. Thus, we can expect to see more asteroids like this one. If we don’t, however, then that may just send SETI into a tizzy.
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