Oumuamua: Asteroid, Comet or Alien Probe?

Oumuamua
Artist's Impression of Oumuamua

One just has to watch television shows such as The History Channel and the Sci-Fi Channel to see so-called experts like Giorgio A. Tsoukalos promoting belief in UFOs and ancient alien astronauts. It comes as rather more of a surprise, however, when a distinguished Harvard University professor like Dr. Avi Loeb starts professing his belief that a mysterious space object called Oumuamua may in fact be an extraterrestrial spacecraft sent to probe our solar system.

Is Oumuamua An Alien Probe?

In October 2017, the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS 1 telescope first observed Oumuamua. This unusual 400 meter long object is more than 10 times as long as it is wide and traveling at speeds of around 196,000 mph. Oumuamua is also believed to have originated in the direction of the constellation Lyra. This would make it the first interstellar object ever discovered insode of our solar system.

While scientists have debated whether Oumuamua is as an asteroid or comet, Dr. Avi Loeb, on the other hand, has an altogether different take on the curious, cigar-shaped rock. As the chair of Harvard’s Astronomy Department stated:

“Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.. Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that ‘Oumuamua is a light sail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment.”

Oumuamua’s Acceleration

Oumuamua is moving too fast to have come from our solar system. Typically, comets and asteroids from within our solar system travel at speeds of around 12 miles per second (19 km per second). Meanwhile, Oumuamua’s speed is nearer to 54 miles per second (87.3 km per second).

Last year, Oumuamua also sped up as it slingshot around the Sun, as if propelled by some inexplicable force. Commenting upon the mystery, Marco Micheli of the European Space Agency said:

“There was something affecting its motion other than the gravitational forces of the Sun and planets.”

One possible explanation for Oumuamua’s acceleration is that uneven heating of its surface and outgassing could have propelled it to greater speeds. Another is that solar radiation pressure may have caused the object to accelerate faster than what would have been expected due to gravity alone.

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

On Oct. 2018, Abraham Loeb and Shmuel Bialy from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) posted a study entitled “Could Solar Radiation Pressure Explain ‘Oumuamua’s Peculiar Acceleration?” In it, the astronomers stated that the strange behavior Oumuamua displayed may either be natural, as mentioned above, or artificial:

“Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that ‘Oumuamua is a light sail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment.”

Without adding the alien origin part of the explanation, the study would mostly have missed mainstream media reports. The sensational aspect of his extraterrestrial claim, however, has taken the world by storm. It also represents a shocking example of sensationalist science. As the saying goes, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Nevertheless, Baily and Loeb have given us science-fiction conjecture with nothing more than speculation to back it up.

As Coryn Bailer-Jones of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy explains:

“There are also some things which an alien spaceship hypothesis would have to address. For example, ‘Oumuamua is tumbling. Why send a spacecraft which is doing this? If it were a spacecraft, this tumbling would make it impossible to keep any instruments pointed at the Earth.” Debris of Dwarf Comet

Debris of Dwarf Comet Most Likely

He also ruled out Loeb’s explanation as not being very useful. In the meantime, Dr. Zdenek Sekanina of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory seems to have come up with a more scientific explanation as to the true nature of ‘Oumuamua. As the groundbreaking astronomer noted in a recent study entitled ‘1I/’Oumuamua As Debris of Dwarf Interstellar Comet That Disintegrated Before Perihelion’:

“Oumuamua is the remnant of an interstellar comet that shattered before making its closest pass to the sun (perihelion), leaving behind a cigar-shaped rocky fragment.”

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