It’s cryptic, dark, and going really, really fast — and a pair of Harvard scientists say the mysterious space object ‘Oumuamua may actually have come from an alien civilization.
The theory, which the scientists call “exotic,” comes from a recent paper they wrote which was published online in November.
“I follow the maxim of Sherlock Holmes: When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” one of the authors, Abraham Loeb, said, according to NBC News.
Scientists first spotted ‘Oumuamua, a Hawaiian word for scout or messenger, in 2017, when they detected it blazing through the solar system at 196,000 miles per hour, Reuters reported. The initially thought it was a comet, but soon realized it didn’t have the telltale gaseous tail, according to the site..
Scientists decided it was probably an asteroid, but then it started mysteriously accelerating again, which is more like what a comet would do, NASA wrote.
Astronomers were baffled, eventually settling on the term “interstellar object,” the Washington Post reported.
“For decades we’ve theorized that such interstellar objects are out there, and now―for the first time―we have direct evidence they exist,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in a 2017 news release.
NASA believes the object is a reddish color after being bombarded with solar radiation and is made out of rock and metal. It is expected to shoot past Saturn and leave the solar system in early 2019, according to the agency.
But if it’s not a comet, and there’s no gas pushing it forward, then what was causing it to accelerate? In their paper, the Harvard scientists say it may have been something called a “solar sail.”
A solar sail is a type of spacecraft that can be propelled forward entirely by the force of sunlight, as radiation from the sun strikes the sail and pushes it forward like wind, according to the Planetary Society, which plans to launch a solar sail of its own into outer space in 2019.
The Harvard scientists speculated that solar radiation hitting a solar sail could explain why the mysterious object started moving faster.
“Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that ‘Oumuamua is a lightsail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment,” the scientists wrote. “... Alternatively, a more exotic scenario is that ‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.”
Some are not so sure the cigar-shaped ‘Oumuamua is a solar sail, however.
“Why send a spacecraft which is doing this?” said Coryn Bailer-Jones, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, according to NBC News. “If it were a spacecraft, this tumbling would make it impossible to keep any instruments pointed at the Earth.”
In their paper, the Harvard scientists say the only way to know for sure is to keep watch and see what else shows up in our solar system. There are probably “thousands of interstellar ‘Oumuamua-like” objects “trapped” somewhere in the solar system, they wrote. Not to mention all the others floating through the stars.