Science News

On October 19, 2017, Robert Weryk, a Canadian astronomer working at the University of Hawaii, discovered the first known interstellar object in our solar system. If this sounds a little strange, with all the relatively regular sightings of asteroids and comets appearing in the news, it\’s important to understand the meaning of the phrase \’in our solar system\’.

Unlike previous interstellar objects, \’Oumuamua, meaning \’a message from afar arriving first\’ in Hawaiian) has entered the zone controlled by the sun\’s gravity. What is potentially more alarming is that \’Oumuamua has come closer to Earth than any other known interstellar object, and we still don\’t know much about that.

So what do we know? \’Oumuamua, a bright object measuring approximately 400-800 meters in length, entered our Solar System traveling at 57,000 miles per hour (16 miles per second). It accelerated towards the Sun, but curled under due to the star\’s gravitational pull. This sent the object on a new trajectory, which once again was slightly altered as it passed Mercury. At its closest point, \’Oumuamua was 15 million miles away from Earth, which may seem like a lot, but could be classified as a near miss in the grand scheme of things. The entire process took forty days.

But no one knows what ‘Oumuamua really was. An asteroid composed of metal and rocks, a comet composed of rocks, dust and ice, or a rotating, intensely glowing, cigar-shaped a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ probe (or \’prolate ellipsoid\’ to give the technical description)? The popular conclusion that \’Oumuamua was likely a cosmic iceberg, a mass of frozen hydrogen, is based on observed findings that \’Oumuamua could not contain water, carbon monoxide, or carbon dioxide, as found in asteroids and comets, because they would be visible phenomena. Perhaps most controversially, astronomers also found that the object was accelerating as it left the solar system, but it had no anti-tail as one might expect to find on a comet. The theory was that tails on comets and asteroids (although less common) act like rocket engines,

Based on this, the general conclusion is that \’Oumuamua was a highly luminescent piece of a half-billion-age planet from outside the Solar System., however, the theory is in a perpetual case of dispute. There are also a growing number of high-profile voices, such as Harvard astrophysicist Professor Avi Loeb, who claim that ‘Oumuamua may have been an a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ spacecraft from the far reaches of space. His theory that \’Oumuamua was a fully operational probe sent intentionally into the vicinity of Earth by an a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ civilization was based on the exact same observations that found it to be a cosmic iceberg.

In the series finale of Craig Charles: U̳F̳O̳ Conspiracies, Craig Charles and astrophysicist Sarah Cruddas investigate \’Oumuamua in an attempt to get one step closer to the answer. They speak to Professor Loeb, who warns that the object could be a \’message in a bottle telling us we\’re not alone\’. Sarah and Craig also speak with members of the SETI Institute who offer their hypotheses about the event and ponder the existence of intelligent life beyond Earth.

Oumuamua is an a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ probe sent from another galaxy, as Professor Loeb believes, or a cosmic glacier? We\’ll probably never know for sure, but we\’ll leave you with that: the Drake Formula. Formulated in 1961 by Dr. Frank Drake, this provides the formula for a probabilistic argument for estimating the number of communicative e̳x̳t̳r̳a̳t̳e̳r̳r̳e̳s̳t̳r̳i̳a̳l̳ c̳i̳v̳i̳l̳i̳z̳a̳t̳i̳o̳n̳s̳ in our galaxy. The answer is 12,600, and that\’s just in the Milky Way. The Hubble Telescope has revealed about 100 billion galaxies in the universe and the James Webb Telescope will likely double that…

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