One of the most mysterious space discoveries of 2017 has been ‘Oumuamua, the first-known object to visit our solar system from interstellar space. The object was spotted in October and was initially believed to be a comet or asteroid hailing from another solar system, which is how it gained its Hawaiian name meaning “a messenger from afar arriving first.” Since then, further observations have some astronomers and scientists speculating that the incredibly fast-moving ‘Oumuamua could be some type of self-replicating deep space probe or even an alien spacecraft. With that in mind, SETI and Breakthrough Listen turned the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope towards the mystery object this month to check for signs of life. What did they hear?
Unfortunately, nothing - yet. Breakthrough Listen collected 90 terabytes of data from ‘Oumuamua, searching for any transmissions which may be of artificial origin. In a statement released this week, Breakthrough Listen says that after analyzing a significant portion of the data, “no such signals have been detected, although the analysis is not yet complete.” Still, the researchers have hope. Andrew Siemion, director of the UC Berkeley SETI Research Center in California remains optimistic that further study might give us our first glimpse of an extraterrestrial intelligence:
It is great to see data pouring in from observations of this novel and interesting source. Our team is excited to see what additional observations and analyses will reveal.
So, while it hasn’t been ruled out that ‘Oumuamua isn’t an alien spacecraft, it seems that the object isn’t broadcasting any obvious signals - at least in any format or wavelength we comprehend. If you’d like to lend a hand (or brain), Breakthrough Listen invites the public to help them sift through the massive amounts of data they’ve collected from ‘Oumuamua and other sources. They note, however, that “the data is stored in specialized formats, and analyzing it may be challenging for non-experts.” In other words, don't expect your favorite YouTube UFO channel to solve this mystery.
Stories like this make me wonder: who knows what types of communication technologies any alien civilizations might use? Would we even recognize a deep-space transmission if it literally struck us in the face? Think about it: a hundred years ago, we had no idea DNA existed. The theory of evolution is less than two hundred years old. More recently, dark matter and dark energy research shows us that our available technology can only detect so much of what lies out there in the universe. While we might never find any obvious transmissions beaming down at us from ‘Oumuamua, I still have hope that we might have just gotten our first inkling that we’re not alone. I still want to believe.