Even after its sighting five years ago, a controversial interstellar object, `Oumuamua, remains at the center of scientific debate. Avi Loeb, a Harvard astronomer, is sure of `Oumuamua’s artificial origin as an alien ship. However, his colleagues aren’t convinced.
The science and stuff to know
In 2017, `Oumuamua, meaning “a messenger from afar, arriving first” in Hawaiian, soared across starry skies in a blink of an eye — traveling past the Sun by over 80 kilometers per second. It was the first-ever object observed near Earth from outside our star system.
This baffling object was starkly different from any previous comet, meteor, or asteroid. Made of dense rock of a reddish hue, `Oumuamua accelerated through our solar system without a visible tail of dust and reflected abnormal brightness with its elongated shape and rotation. These reasons convinced Loeb of its alien origins. It matches no other known patterns.
As the chair of Havard’s astronomy department, Loeb’s colleagues were surprised by his radical idea that `Oumuamua was a light-powered sail manufactured by aliens. Many other scientific theories came forward about this, from a piece of a Pluto-like planet to a hydrogen iceberg and even a dust cloud containing unimaginable forces. Some of his colleagues wished Loeb furthered his scientific process before relieving his theories.
“Mainstream scientists should allocate funds for finding the next `Oumuamua-like object and identifying beyond a reasonable doubt its nature,” Loeb wrote. Scientists do agree with this statement. More telescopes, better models, and special space probes should be ready the next time another mysterious object glides through space.
Human wonder drives science. In the past, many ideas far from the status quo were rejected. The Catholic Church persecuted Galileo for believing that Earth, along with other planets, revolved around the Sun in 1632. Nicolaus Copernicus presented this heliocentric theory more than a century before Galileo’s book. Another scientist, Johannes Kepler, thought the planets traveled around the Sun in a circular pattern. Yet, none of these men saw their theory accepted within their lifetime. The rejections never stopped these men, and Loeb might follow in their footsteps.
“The greatest gift of being a scientist is that you get to wonder and take risks,” Loeb told Smithsonian Magazine. There are still many questions about the intricacies of our solar system. Today, one of our biggest questions is: “Are we alone?”
Spearheaded by Loeb in July 2021, the Galileo Project, named after the famous astronomer, will use data to elevate the search for extraterrestrial technology from anecdotal observations and legends to systematic scientific research. In a first anniversary segment, Loeb said, “the sky is not classified.” Instead, all findings will be shared with the public, unlike government research into extraterrestrials.
This project aims to discover the nature of outliers in the solar system. It will be done by imaging interstellar objects, intercepting their paths, and exploring the oceans from previous impacts. Only time will tell the mysteries hiding within our galaxy and beyond.