Scientists push back against Harvard 'alien spacecraft' theory

Olive Hawkins
November 7, 2018

Oumuamua was dubbed an "interstellar object" when scientists decided it was neither an asteroid or a comet; while comets can speed up in a process known as "outgassing", the shape lacked the cloud of dust that surrounds a melting comet.

That's why the researchers raise the possibility that Oumuamua's an alien craft in the new issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Oumuamua, Hawaiian for "messenger" or "scout", was first viewed by telescopes in October 2017.

According to researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the outer-space object may not be an comet after all.

The researchers noted in a pre-print of the article that it was an "exotic scenario", but that "Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization".

They add in the paper that the object could be a "lightsail of artifical origin".

Similar to how a sailing boat uses the wind in its sail to push it forward, a spacecraft with a light sail uses the light from a nearby star to propel it, with radiation pressure exerting a tiny amount of force. 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.

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Oumuamua baffled scientists past year due to its unique speed and trajectory: as it passed through our solar system, Oumuamua accelerated. "But one should not blindly accept this clever hypothesis when there is also a mundane (and a priori more likely) explanation for Oumuamua - namely that it's a comet or asteroid from afar".

Claiming the vessel may be made by aliens, Dr Bialy told The Times: 'Even if there's a small chance it's so interesting that we can't ignore it'. "The approach I take to the subject is purely scientific and evidence-based".

He raised questions in particular about the object's tumbling motion.

"Why send a spacecraft which is doing this?" said Coryn Bailer-Jones, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, according to NBC News.

When the object was first spotted scientists believed it might have been travelling through space for hundreds of millions of years. 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.

In December 2017 it was announced the astronomers were going to scan Oumuamua for signs of alien life.

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