In November 2017, an object passed by our planet that was unlike anything astronomers had ever seen. Spotted by a telescope in Hawaii, this strange thing was dubbed ‘Oumuamua. It moved too fast for it to have come from our solar system, its orbit was unusual, and it didn’t have any of the traditional markings of an asteroid or comet. All this led Dr. Avi Loeb to hypothesize that ‘Oumuamua was artificially made, perhaps a piece of technology or some debris from a faraway alien civilization. Before you discount Loeb, you should know that he isn’t the average UFO-spotting kook you might see on a rerun of Unsolved Mysteries. He’s an astrophysicist who has been teaching astronomy at Harvard since 1993, and chaired its astronomy department for nine years. In his new book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, which comes out on January 26, Loeb makes a persuasive scientific argument about ‘Oumuamua’s otherworldly origins, and delves into why his peers have been so hostile to the idea of life outside of Earth.
“Overall, about a quarter of our galaxy’s 200 billion stars are orbited by planets that are habitable the way Earth is, with surface conditions that allow liquid water and the chemistry of life as we know it,” he writes. “Given so many worlds … with similar life-friendly conditions, it’s very likely that intelligent organisms have evolved elsewhere.” The opposition to even the mere concept of extraterrestrial life, Loeb contends, “boils down to conservatism, which many scientists adopt in order to minimize the number of mistakes they make during their careers.”
The object was discovered by the Pan-STARRS [Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System] telescope in Hawaii and was given the name ‘Oumuamua, which means a scout or a messenger from far away in the Hawaiian language. It was the very first object spotted near the earth that came from outside our solar system. It moved too fast to be bound to the sun. It was clearly coming from interstellar space. When this object was analyzed, it looked like there was an extra push on it, in addition to the force of gravity from the sun. Usually with comets, you get this extra push from the cometary tail, the rocket effect. When gases evaporate, and go in one direction, they push the object in the opposite direction, just like a jet plane. The only problem is this extra push was not accompanied by a cometary tail. So what gave it this push remains a mystery.
In September 2020, there was another object that exhibited an extra push without the cometary tail. It was found that the object is actually a rocket booster from a launch of a lunar lander in 1966. Here is an object that we can identify as artificially made, that we produced it, and it behaves in a similar way to ‘Oumuamua.
Oumuamua was tumbling and spinning, and the brightness varied by a factor of ten as it was tumbling every eight hours. That means that it has an extreme geometry that is at least ten times longer than it is wide, because as it’s spinning around, you’re seeing the area that reflects sunlight changing by a factor of ten. The best fit for the light curve we saw was a flat object, pancake-like.
These are the facts: A pancake-like object the size of a football field seems to be pushed by a force that is not related to a cometary tail. So we suggested that it’s a light sail, like the sail on a boat that is being pushed by wind. It is a very thin surface that is pushed by reflecting sunlight. We are actually developing light-sail technology for space exploration because it offers the advantage of not needing to carry fuel with the spacecraft. It’s just being pushed by light.
So it seems that ‘Oumuamua is shaped like a disc, which is the stereotypical shape that we associate with UFOs. Is that a coincidence?
It could be a coincidence. It could be just the surface layer of a spaceship or something else that was torn apart. It could be something like a sort of space junk. It’s just like walking on the beach. Most of the time you see rocks or seashells, but every now and then you see a plastic bottle that is artificially made. This could be junk like that. Even if it’s not functional, the significance of ‘Oumuamua is that it implies, perhaps, that we are not alone, that it was not naturally produced, that it was produced by a technological civilization.
It’s a very different type of evidence than in the past. We searched for radio signals. This is very different. It’s like a message in a bottle, a physical object that we trace that is artificially produced. The moral of the story is that even though we didn’t get enough evidence on this object to get an image of it, or be sure that it’s artificial, it is sufficiently intriguing. We should continue to search the sky for similar objects.
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