Oumuamua and the evidence for an alien race



This is a message that appears at the end of 2010: Odyssey Two, Arthur C. Clarke’s follow-up to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It is repeated over and over again by the infamous spaceship computer, HAL.

If you’re familiar with 2001: A Space Odyssey, you’ll know why this message has to be taken seriously.

If not, let’s have a recap, because it is eerily reminiscent of a discovery Phys.org wrote about this week.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, humanity’s evolution is accelerated by an alien species. Very little is known about this species, except for the fact they created three great monoliths.

One in Africa, which was credited with the evolution of apes into humans. One buried on the moon, which advanced humanity’s space exploration. And a third orbiting Jupiter, which acted as a gateway to interstellar travel.

As you can imagine, in the book, the discovery of a monolith on the moon changed everything. Now people finally had an answer to perhaps the most important question ever asked: are we alone in the universe?

The answer was a resounding no.

The message repeated at the end of the second book is an excellent example of suspense and intrigue building.

What’s so special about Europa, why mustn’t humanity interfere with it?

What could possibly be going on there?

And what will happen when we inevitably go against that commandment and investigate?

Of course, you have to read the third book to find out. But even as a standalone, that message stays with you.

Today, I’m not going to tell you what happens there, but I am going to talk about something which could have equally large consequences for humanity – albeit real and not fictional ones.

A message from the stars

Okay, that’s enough preamble. The idea I want to talk about today was put forward by a pair of astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

It concerns an asteroid dubbed “Oumuamua” that was first observed in October last year.

As Phys.org writes:

In the months that followed, multiple follow-up observations were conducted that allowed astronomers to get a better idea of its size and shape, while also revealing that it had the characteristics of both a comet and an asteroid.

Interestingly enough, there has also been some speculation that based on its shape, ‘Oumuamua might actually be an interstellar spacecraft (Breakthrough Listen even monitored it for signs of radio signals!).

The reason for this is because managed to pass the sun without “outgassing” (giving off heat or vapour) and then accelerate out of the solar system.

The two astronomers say that if Oumuamua really were just a comet, it would have experienced outgassing as it passed the sun. And that if outgassing were responsible for its acceleration out of the solar system, it would have caused it so spin wildly, which it did not.

Here’s what one of the pair, Professor Abraham Loeb, has stated in Scientific American:

The abundance of interstellar asteroids with ‘Oumuamua’s kilometer-scale length was estimated a decade to be vanishingly small, making this discovery a complete surprise.

In addition, ‘Oumuamua is more elongated than any known asteroid in the solar system. But most intriguing is the fact that ‘Oumuamua deviated from the orbit one would have expected based on the sun’s gravitational field. Although such deviations could be associated with the rocket effect associated by outgassing due to heating of water ice by the sun, there was no sign of any cometary tail behind ‘Oumuamua, and calculations imply, contrary to observations, that its spin period should have changed significantly by any cometary torque. Might ‘Oumuamua have an artificial engine? Even if it happens to be a piece of natural rock as indicated by its lack of radio transmission, this rock appears to be very unusual by many counts.

Finding evidence for space junk of artificial origin would provide an affirmative answer to the age-old question “Are we alone?” This would have a dramatic impact on our culture and add a new cosmic perspective to the significance of human activity.

The pair suggest two explanations as to this possible solar sail, from Phys.org:

First, they suggest that the probe may actually be a defunct sail floating under the influence of gravity and stellar radiation, similar to debris from ship wrecks floating in the ocean. This would help explain why Breakthrough Listen found no evidence of radio transmissions.

On the other hand, as Loeb told Universe Today, ‘Oumuamua could be an active piece of alien technology that came to explore our solar system, the same way we hope to explore Alpha Centauri using Starshot and similar technologies.

Of course, it could also just be an unusual asteroid. But the idea that there is intelligent life out there, sending out solar sails to explore the universe, is a compelling one.

Perhaps Arthur C. Clarke was on to something. Perhaps this will be the first of many strange asteroids astronomers begin to observe.

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

Category: Genetics and Biotechnology

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