Earlier this year, our solar system got a visitor the likes of which it has never seen. Astronomers first spotted the object on October 18th using the PanSTARRS 1 telescope in Maui. At first, the visitor appeared to be a the first known comet to originate from outside our solar system, but further observations revealed it to be much stranger. Nevertheless, it was clear that the speeding visitor came from interstellar space, so the object was given the name ‘Oumuamua from the Hawaiian meaning “a messenger from afar arriving first.” Further analysis by the European Southern Observatory found the object to be perhaps not quite a comet, not quite an asteroid, and cigar-shaped. Based on the light bouncing off of it (or lack thereof), astronomers estimate the object to be among the darkest objects ever observed in space, absorbing 96% of the light that touches its surface.
Given the strange nature of the object, it wasn’t long before speculation ran wild that we might have just encountered our first extraterrestrial spacecraft. Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard’s astronomy department, writes “the more I study this object, the more unusual it appears, making me wonder whether it might be an artificially made probe which was sent by an alien civilization.” In particular, scientists are struck by the long cylindrical shape of the object; ‘Oumuamua is estimated to be between 100 and 400 meters long with much smaller diameter. Such cylinder shapes are perfect for aerospace applications – just look at our own space shuttles and rockets – but are seldom seen in naturally occurring space objects like comets or asteroids which tend to be more spheroid.
With so much weirdness surrounding ‘Oumuamua, the Breakthrough Listen initiative has decided the object could be its best bet for discovering proof of an alien intelligence. Breakthrough Listen hails itself as “the largest ever scientific research program aimed at finding evidence of civilizations beyond Earth” and shares facilities and researchers with SETI. In a press release issued this morning, Breakthrough Listen announced that even if the possibility of ‘Oumuamua being an alien ‘artifact’ is low, it’s worth checking out:
Researchers working on long-distance space transportation have previously suggested that a cigar or needle shape is the most likely architecture for an interstellar spacecraft, since this would minimize friction and damage from interstellar gas and dust. While a natural origin is more likely, there is currently no consensus on what that origin might have been, and Breakthrough Listen is well positioned to explore the possibility that ‘Oumuamua could be an artifact.
Even if the chances that ‘Oumuamua could be an alien craft are tiny, any possibility greater than 0% is exciting. Could this be it? Are we finally be close to getting a glimpse of a civilization far more advanced than our own? I sure hope so. If this festering dung heap of a civilization is the best the Universe has got, maybe it’s best that we’re all alone out here. Breakthrough Listen’s observations of ‘Oumuamua begin tomorrow at the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. Fingers crossed.