Did an alien space probe pass near Earth a year ago?

Illustration of Oumuamua

Scientists with the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics published a new study discussing the origins of such an object, including the possibility that it might be a "lightsail of artificial origin, designed for interstellar travel".

The object was discovered a year ago with the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope atop Haleakalā on Maui and was given the Hawaiian name ʻOumuamua, meaning 'a messenger from afar arriving first'. The reason for this is because Oumuamua appeared to actually pick up speed as it passed the sun, suggesting the object could have an artificially built light sail that it fuels itself with.

The idea that the object could have been part of some massive alien solar-powered technology may seem far-fetched, but the authors suggest an even more "exotic" explanation: "that Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilisation".

Lightsails are a proposed method of spacecraft propulsion which uses radiation pressure exerted from sunlight or large mirrors. Not only is it the first-ever interstellar asteroid or comet detected by astronomers while passing through the solar system, its shape is unusual, its acceleration is unexpected, and a cometary tail - the signature trail of particles seen behind shooting stars - is conspicuous in its absence.

The researchers are not saying outright that Oumuamua is a sign of extraterrestrial life.

Mr Loeb is an adviser to Breakthrough Starshot, an initiative that plans to send a fleet of tiny laser-powered lightsail craft to the nearest star system.

In a paper to be published November 12 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the pair declare that the reddish, elongated, stadium-sized object "may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization", NBC News reported.

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Despite the Harvard researchers' work, most scientists, NBC News says, are urging caution in assuming there's any other civilization beyond Earth's atmosphere - and that it's actively seeking us out.

"In science", he said in an email, "we must ask ourselves, "Where is the evidence?, not "Where is the lack of evidence so that I can fit in any hypothesis that I like?"

He raised questions in particular about the object's tumbling motion.

Scientists first called the object an asteroid, then later deemed it a mildly active comet.

"I wouldn't say I "believe" it is sent by aliens, as I am a scientist, and not a believer, I rely on evidence to put forward possible physical explanation for observed phenomena".

"Two very capable, very bright astronomers, from a very credible organization, Harvard, have come out with the notion that Oumuamua could be alien in origin", Diamond said.

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