Oumuamua, a cigar-shaped object spotted in 2017 during its crossing of the solar system, could possibly, under conditions… have been sent by extraterrestrials, according to two Harvard researchers in a sharply criticized scientific article.
Oumuamua was spotted by the Pan-STARRS1 telescope in Hawaii, hence its name, which means “messenger” in Hawaiian. It is about 400 meters long and 40 wide, and has been tracked by several telescopes as the first detected object from another star system. After being described as an asteroid, a team of the European Space Agency estimated in June 2018 that it was more likely a comet — with ice that turns into gas near the Sun.
However, according to a recent article from two Havard researchers, Oumuamua could be something completely different, namely a “fully operational probe sent voluntarily near the Earth by an extraterrestrial civilization”.
The reason for this assumption is that Oumuamua moves at a faster rate than expected. The excessive acceleration could be explained by the pressure of solar radiation, or “solar sail”. But according to the two researchers, from Harvard University, this is only possible for celestial bodies “which have a large surface and are very thin, which does not exist in nature”. Hence the recourse to the this alternative explanation.
Scientists, however, had rejected this theory shortly after the discovery of the celestial body in 2017. No artificial signals were detected from it. “Like many researchers, I would very much like to believe that there is irrefutable proof of extraterrestrial life, but that is not the case,” says Alan Fitzsimmons, astronomer at Queens University. “It has already been shown that the observed characteristics of the object are consistent with those of a comet-like body ejected from another star system,” he says. “Some of the arguments in their study are based on numbers that contain a lot of uncertainty”.
Katie Mack, an astrophysicist at North Carolina State University, also disagrees. “You have to understand that for scientists, the craziest idea is always publishable, as long as there is a tiny chance that it is not wrong,” she wrote on Twitter. “Even the authors probably do not believe it themselves.”
Indeed, the authors of the article themselves have raised doubt on their own publication. “I would not say I believe it was sent by extraterrestrials,” says Shmuel Bialy, a postdoctoral astrophysicist at Harvard, co-author of the article. “Because I am a scientist, not a believer, I rely on evidence to find possible physical explanations for observed phenomena.” The other author, Avi Loeb, head of the Harvard Astronomy Department, told NBC that humanity may never know because Oumuamua is moving away from Earth and will not be coming back. “It is impossible to guess the purpose of Oumuamua without more data”.