Nov 14, 2018 I Paul Seaburn

What is ‘Oumuamua? The Controversy Continues

‘Oumuamua, that Hawaiian-named, cigar-shaped comet/asteroid/spaceship/planet fragment/something else and the controversy surrounding what exactly it is keeps getting more heated … now with personal attacks, rebuttals and more. Less than a week after many media sites reported that Avi Loeb, chairman of Harvard's astronomy department, said in a letter in The Astrophysical Journal Letters that ‘Oumuamua could be a spaceship or a "lightsail of artificial origin "from an alien civilization, his and his co-author’s intelligence and opinions were called into question by scholars in numerous fields.

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"Like most scientists, I would love there to be convincing evidence of alien life, but this isn't it. It has already been shown that its observed characteristics are consistent with a comet-like body ejected from another star system. "And some of the arguments in this study are based on numbers with large uncertainties."
-- Dr. Alan Fitzsimmons, Queens University Belfast.

And …

“The thing you have to understand is: scientists are perfectly happy to publish an outlandish idea if it has even the tiniest *sliver* of a chance of not being wrong. But until every other possibility has been exhausted dozen times over, even the authors probably don’t believe it.”
-- Astrophysicist Dr. Katie Mack, North Carolina State

The Daily Galaxy contacted Dr. Loeb and he clarified the contents of the letter. Here are portions of his response:

“I was very surprised about the reaction of the media to our paper … It is exciting to live at a time when we have the scientific technology to search for evidence of alien civilizations. The evidence about `Oumuamua is not conclusive but interesting. I will be truly excited once we have conclusive evidence … The excess acceleration of `Oumuamua was detected at multiple times, ruling out an impulsive kick due to a break up of the object. The only other explanation that comes to mind is the extra force exerted on `Oumuamua by sunlight. In order for it to be effective, `Oumuamua needs to be less than a millimeter in thickness, like a sail. This led us to suggest that it may be a light-sail produced by an alien civilization. I welcome other proposals, but I cannot think of another explanation for the peculiar acceleration of `Oumuamua.”

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'Oumuamua's path through the solar system

Loeb’s co-author, Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, also responded. Here are portions of his answer/defense:

“It’s true that the Harvard paper suggesting that this object might be engineered, rather than simply the ten millionth rock from the Sun, has certainly provoked a lot of interest by the public. But one should keep in mind that the idea of alien company has perennially been interesting to the public … One-third of the public seems to think that we really are being visited by extraterrestrial tourists … It’s obviously far less interesting to suggest that Oumuamua might be no more than an insensible, random hunk of ice.”

Loeb is an adviser to Breakthrough Starshot, an initiative working to send a fleet of tiny laser-powered lightsails to the nearest star system. Is his study about ‘Oumuamua possibly just a justification for this project? Is his quest to find alien life blinding him to scientific principles? What does Harvard think about all of this attention from the UFO world?

One thing is for certain … the controversy circling ‘Oumuamua is far from over.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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